Hurricane Ian crashed into Florida on Wednesday as one of the strongest storms in U.S. history, a Category 4 behemoth that within hours left more than 1.8 million customers without power.
Tampa Bay appeared to have been spared the storm’s worst as it clawed across Central Florida, thanks to an eastward shift this week that took its Gulf Coast landfall two hours south. The eyewall hit the barrier island of Cayo Costa near Sanibel and Captiva around 3:05 p.m.
Some 450,000 Hillsborough and Pinellas homes and businesses had no power by nightfall, as wind gusts toppled trees and power lines in neighborhoods across the region. More than 14,000 people had evacuated to emergency shelters in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. Heavy rains were already pushing rivers like the Manatee and Little Manatee into flood stage.
At ground zero around Fort Myers, officials were only beginning to get a sense of the structural damage left by Ian’s powerful winds and 12-foot storm surge, Gov. Ron DeSantis said.
“I think we’re going to end up seeing that it may end up being a Category 5,” DeSantis said. “But at minimum, it’s going to be a strong Category 4 that’s going to rank as one of the top 5 hurricanes to ever hit the Florida peninsula.”
With sustained winds of 150 mph, Ian tied with 2004′s Charley and a 1919 Keys hurricane as Florida’s fourth-strongest direct strike on record, according to Colorado State University meteorologist and hurricane expert Philip Klotzbach. The only storms stronger: Michael in 2018, Andrew in 1992 and the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.
Charley, which like Ian threatened Tampa Bay before making landfall farther south, caused 15 direct deaths and an estimated $16 billion in property damage. Ian’s damage as it lumbers across Florida could be even more sweeping.
For one thing, Ian was much larger when it hit — as Weather Channel hurricane expert Rick Knabb pointed out on Twitter, all of Charley’s strongest winds could fit inside Ian’s 35-mile-wide eye. Sen. Rick Scott said a more apt comparison might be 2018′s Hurricane Michael, which was upgraded from a Category 4 to a Category 5 after demolishing the Panhandle.
Rescue officials were quickly overwhelmed. The Naples Fire-Rescue Department posted a Facebook video of firetrucks submerged in waist-deep water. The Collier County Sheriff’s Office wrote on Facebook that it was in “triage mode,” with calls from residents stuck in homes facing “life threatening medical emergencies in deep water.” In one hour on Tuesday, the state saw 19 to 20 tornado warnings, state emergency officials said. Another seven to 10 were issued Wednesday.
Tampa Bay remained under hurricane and storm surge warnings late Wednesday, with 12 to 20 inches of rainfall expected, and 30 inches possible, in Central and Northeast Florida, where Ian is expected to leave the state. Authorities there are issuing evacuation orders in anticipation of storm surge and flooding. As of 9 p.m., it was still a Category 3 storm 85 miles south-southeast of Orlando, with sustained winds of 105 mph.
Said DeSantis: “We’ve got a long way to go before this storm exits the state.”
In Tampa Bay, shades of Irma
In Tampa Bay, Ian’s approach recalled that of Hurricane Irma in 2017, when the storm sucked so much water from Tampa Bay that curious onlookers could walk hundreds of feet out onto the slimy, sandy sludge normally hidden below.
Jake Brill, a 17-year-old student at Jesuit High School who lives off Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard, couldn’t resist clomping out onto Hillsborough Bay for the chance to take a selfie from the other side of Bayshore’s iconic balustrade Wednesday morning.
“I already got my inflatable kayaks out of storage for after the storm when everything is all flooded,” Brill said. “It’ll definitely be the best Instagram pics ever.”
Marty Boatwright, a lifelong commercial fisher from South Tampa, scrambled to pull up roughly 300 crab traps sprinkled across the region, but he couldn’t help but think of those facing Ian’s worst farther south.
“I don’t know why it is that Tampa Bay always seems to get lucky,” he said.
Lucky or not, signs of Ian’s impact were everywhere.
Roads cleared as buses stopped service and police closed the Sunshine Skyway bridge. Emergency vehicles in Sarasota County stopped responding to calls as road conditions became too unsafe. Tampa International Airport will be closed until at least Thursday, and Hillsborough County extended school closures through Friday.
The Carnival cruise ship Paradise, which was scheduled to return to Port Tampa Bay this week, extended its trip to Cozumel, Mexico, with plans to resume course for Tampa on Wednesday, Carnival spokesperson Matt Lupoli said. Another Paradise cruise scheduled to depart Thursday was canceled.
On Tampa’s low-lying Davis Islands, Tampa General Hospital stretched an impermeable “aqua fence” around the hospital campus. In St. Petersburg, Sunken Gardens employees whisked more than 15 flamingoes into a restroom for shelter, and in Ybor City, a small flock of the borough’s feral chickens camped out in the J.C. Newman Cigar Co.
Police around the region said they hadn’t seen an immediate spike in looting or burglaries, although two people were arrested on misdemeanor charges after they were spotted with “burglary tools” outside Tampa’s Ikea, Tampa Police spokesperson Crystal Clark said.
Tampa Electric Co. said it had seen an increase in scam attempts by bad actors purporting to be the electric utility, telling customers that if they didn’t pay their bill right now, their power would be cut off. Those calls aren’t real, spokesperson Cherie Jacobs said. In fact, the company has suspended disconnections until further notice.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch said police, firefighters and other city employees will assess the damage from Ian on Thursday “at first daybreak,” and urged residents to stay inside as the “worst parts” of the storm passed through late Wednesday.
“We will experience tropical storm force winds and rainfall,” he said.
Many who evacuated couldn’t shake a sense of tension.
Jack and Kelly Berrenger of Tarpon Springs decamped for the 10-story Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld with their 8-year-old Bichon Frise, Teddy, and cats, Rose and Violet. There, they watched the storm pummel Fort Myers on a massive lobby TV tuned to the Weather Channel. They monitored their single-story ranch 12 blocks from the water via a home security system.
“It’s a little bit stressful,” Kelly said.
Southwest Florida’s unknown toll
Farther south, where the impact was more severe, some residents decided to stick it out.
At the Hilton Garden Inn in Fort Myers, guests forced out of flood zones loaded whatever they could grab from their homes onto luggage carts, then gathered Wednesday morning for a $15.95 buffet breakfast — limited to one turn each through the line.
“I’ve been watching it for two days, watching everything, thinking it was going to go up to Tampa,” said Greg Copeland, who came to the hotel after evacuating his Fort Myers home.
Karissa Thomas, who lives about a block and a half from the Gulf of Mexico in Marco Island, initially wasn’t concerned about water making its way to her apartment building.
“We are on the third floor of a concrete building and have shutters,” Thomas told the Tampa Bay Times via Facebook message. “(I) was born in Naples so storms don’t panic me. We ran before and the storm always found us anyway, so what’s the point?”
An hour later, she wrote back: “Actually getting really bad now. True flooding.”
Emergency call centers have received hundreds of calls for help from residents in Southwest Florida who didn’t evacuate, state officials said. In Lee, Hendry and Glades counties, 911 call centers were down and being rerouted to smaller counties. Officials couldn’t say how many people needed to be rescued.
Citizens Property Insurance, the state-run insurer of last resort that covers more residences than about any other company, said Wednesday it estimates it may see 225,000 claims from Hurricane Ian. The company doesn’t write flood insurance policies, which are mostly offered through the federal National Flood Insurance Program. Preliminary estimates made before landfall indicate $3.8 billion in losses for Citizens, spokesperson Michael Peltier said.
President Joe Biden has signed a disaster declaration for 24 counties in Florida, which allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate aid for certain Florida counties in Ian’s path. DeSantis has asked Biden to make a major disaster declaration, which would apply to all of Florida’s 67 counties. DeSantis asked FEMA for a 100% cost share for debris removal and other emergency measures in the next 60 days.
Biden and DeSantis spoke Tuesday evening, with both administrations saying they wanted to put aside personal feuds and pettiness to focus on helping those in need.
“This is about the people of Florida,” White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said. “This is about two people who wanted to have a conversation about how we can be partners to the governor and his constituents and make sure that we are delivering for the people of Florida.”
Late Wednesday, with higher winds and more rain approaching Tampa, Mayor Jane Castor made one more plea for residents to shelter in place, saying the area had yet to see the worst.
“We are going to get the majority of the rain and the higher winds,” she said, “and they are going to last throughout the night.”
Times staff writers Bernadette Berdychowski, Sue Carlton, Matt Cohen, Anastasia Dawson, Romy Ellenbogen, Jack Evans, Olivia George, Paul Guzzo, Mark Katches, Emily L. Mahoney, Tony Marrero, Lawrence Mower, Michaela Mulligan, Christopher O’Donnell, Sam Ogozalek, Zachary T. Sampson, Christopher Spata, Dan Sullivan, Natalie Weber and Colleen Wright and The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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2022 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide
HOW TO TALK TO KIDS ABOUT THE HURRICANE: A school mental health expert says to let them know what’s happening, keep a routine and stay calm.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN A SHELTER: What to bring — and not bring — plus information on pets, keeping it civil and more.
SAFEGUARD YOUR HOME: Storms and property damage go hand in hand. Here’s how to prepare.
IT'S STORM SEASON: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.
RISING THREAT: Tampa Bay will flood. Here's how to get ready.
DOUBLE-CHECK: Checklists for building all kinds of hurricane kits
PHONE IT IN: Use your smartphone to protect your data, documents and photos.
SELF-CARE: Protect your mental health during a hurricane.
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Rising Threat: A special report on flood risk and climate change
PART 1: The Tampa Bay Times partnered with the National Hurricane Center for a revealing look at future storms.
PART 2: Even weak hurricanes can cause huge storm surges. Experts say people don't understand the risk.
PART 3: Tampa Bay has huge flood risk. What should we do about it?
INTERACTIVE MAP: Search your Tampa Bay neighborhood to see the hurricane flood risk.