As day broke in Tampa Bay on Thursday, those who’d stayed behind emerged to assess the damage.
They found fallen trees blocking streets, branches dropped on cars and large signs for supermarkets and tourist attractions toppled — but, thankfully, not the widespread destruction they’d feared from one of the most powerful storms to ever hit the U.S.
“Lucky,” “fortunate,” “thankful” and “minimal” were the words repeated by local government officials as they updated residents on Hurricane Ian’s aftermath.
The Category 4 storm hewed to the experts’ final forecasts, decimating Florida’s Gulf Coast 100 miles south, but once again sparing Tampa Bay from a dreaded direct hit. Instead, Tampa Bay residents grappled with images of storm-surge-flooded homes in Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties and breathed an uneasy sigh of relief under startlingly sunny skies.
“I think our prayers in this area certainly were answered,” Tampa Electric Co. CEO Archie Collins said at a news conference alongside Tampa’s mayor. “Unfortunately, when you’re wishing a hurricane away from your own area, you may be inadvertently wishing it on somebody else.”
There were no known fatalities in Tampa Bay, but there was danger. Hillsborough County deputies braved 48 mph winds while cutting through a tree with chainsaws to free a person trapped underneath it, Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said at a separate news conference. Deputies rushed the man to the hospital, and he was expected to survive.
Officials urged caution during cleanup when danger from falls and downed power lines greatly increases.
The area wasn’t completely out of the woods. Residents along the flood plains of the Little Manatee and Alafia rivers in Hillsborough County were warned late Thursday to watch out for flooding that night and into Friday. A gauge near Wimauma showed the Little Manatee had reached “major flood” status by 4 p.m.
Northwest Hillsborough County received 1 inch of rain from the storm, said Emergency Management Director Tim Dudley, while the southeastern corner of the county got 12 inches.
The worst effect for most in Tampa Bay, though, was the lack of electricity to run refrigerators, air conditioners and devices.
The peak number of outages in the region reached above 500,000, or roughly one-third of all Tampa Electric Co. and Duke Energy customers in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough.
Thousands of line workers brought in from across the U.S. were surveying the damage before sunrise. By evening, they’d made some headway. Duke customers without power numbered about 101,000 in Pinellas, and 5,000 in Pasco. Tampa Electric was down to 220,000 outages.
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Spokespeople from the power companies stressed patience. Collins, from Tampa Electric, said it would be “at least a couple of days” before all their customers were back on line and laid out the order of operations: First they fix power plants, then substations, then critical buildings like fire stations and hospitals, then places needed for supplies and “normalcy” like grocery stores. Then come private residences.
Hundreds of traffic lights were dead in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties in the morning. By evening, most were either running on generators or being directed by police. Everything was wet and dusted with wet leaves blown from branches by the hurricane and tropical storm-level gusts that blew through the night.
The highest recorded winds in the area were 77 mph at St. Petersburg’s Albert Whitted Airport, 75 mph in Tampa and Riverview, 59 mph in Clearwater Beach and 52 mph in Zephyrhills.
More impacted cities further south, like Punta Gorda, saw winds of 140 mph.
Throughout Thursday came official notifications: Evacuation orders were lifted. Public shelters, where more than 13,000 people in Hillsborough and Pinellas had taken refuge, were closed. Trees were cleared from the entrance to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and the span opened after a 29-hour closure.
K’Lynn Mcleod, 13, of Carrollwood, was among the evacuees pleasantly surprised by how welcoming the shelters were. She stayed in a McKitrick Elementary classroom in Lutz with her mom and sisters, one of whom celebrated a birthday during the storm. Shelter workers decorated the staff lounge and held an impromptu party.
“They fed us and made sure we were OK,” K’Lynn said. “It was actually comfortable and fun.”
Bridges to the Pinellas beach communities opened to the public again, without a residential pass. Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco County school districts will clean schools that became shelters on Friday, and welcome students back on Monday. Public transit bus routes will return to normal on Friday in Hillsborough and Saturday in Pinellas.
The water that Ian sucked out of Tampa Bay, exposing the sand along the St. Petersburg waterfront and Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa, rushed back Thursday.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced the team would play at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, as scheduled. “I’ve assured the NFL that the only wrath that we will see in the city of Tampa on Sunday,” said Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, “is what the Bucs bring down on K.C.”
“We got lucky,” said Darryl Gibbons, a lifelong St. Petersburg resident who watched the forecast before Ian turned away from Tampa Bay. “It’s spiritual,” the 59-year-old added, referencing the local legend of the Indian rocks offering protection. “I strongly believe that, because most storms get to us, and they shift. It’s not luck; it was God.”
Many businesses were closed Thursday, bringing crowds to whatever was open. O’Maddy’s pub in waterfront Gulfport was filled with patrons by noon. More than a dozen people lined up outside a Waffle House in Mango waiting to get in. Select Publix stores reopened late Thursday, and planned to be back to normal operations Friday, as would other large retailers.
Tampa’s 120-year-old historic Jackson House, which went into the storm badly needing structural repairs, came out unscathed. The dozen flamingos that rode out the storm in the women’s restroom at Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg were doing just fine.
Still, some areas would need some care before returning to normal.
At the Sea Palms Motel & Polynesian Putter, a miniature golf course, the large sign crashed down and smashed onto a bus bench and chain link fence along Gulf Boulevard in St. Pete Beach.
A sign for the Two Mermaids Resort in Treasure Island had fallen and shattered. A very shredded, but still standing American flag waved in the wind in front of the Penthouse Beach Club.
John Petrilena, 63, works at the Penthouse and stayed there to ride out the storm. He moved here from Pittsburgh in April, so Ian was his first hurricane. He said the destruction that took place in Fort Myers could have happened in Pinellas. “My heart certainly went out to those people,” he said, “because that so, so easily could’ve been us.”
The Aldi sign on 34th Street S in St. Petersburg was ripped down. The Wish Tree behind the Dalí Museum in downtown, where for the past 11 years guests have tied their wishes to its branches, was uprooted. A glass sign in front of the Hillsborough County headquarters in downtown Tampa was smashed, apparently by flying debris. Deputies guarded a downed utility line near Gulf Boulevard and 134th Avenue in Madeira Beach.
In eastern Hillsborough, a small river of storm water flowed through a ditch along Lithia Pinecrest Road, but did not reach the street. The M from a Marshall’s store sign was ripped off in Plant City. A big hunk of shingles, apparently torn from a roof, sat on a roadside in Fishhawk Ranch.
The death toll in Southwest counties, where the storm caused catastrophic damage, was reportedly more than a dozen as of Thursday evening, but expected to climb. Before dawn Thursday, Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office pickup trucks towing flat aluminum boats were rolling south toward Charlotte County to help with search efforts. Officials in Hillsborough said they also were sending aid.
Those wanting to help can sign up to volunteer with Jose Andreas’ World Central Kitchen and Metropolitan Ministries at metromin.org, donate to the Salvation Army at give.helpsalvationarmy.org or find other opportunities here.
Times staff writers Eduardo Encina, Natalie Weber, Dan Sullivan, Emily L. Mahoney, Sam Ogozalek, Gabrielle Calise, C.T. Bowen, Lauren Peace, Ian Hodgson, Kirby Wilson, Langston Taylor, Bernadette Berdychowski, Sharon Kennedy Wynne, Kelly A. Stefani, Olivia George, Jeffrey S. Solochek, Tracey McManus, Marlene Sokol, Helen Freund, Tony Marrero and Colleen Wright contributed to this story.