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  1. Opinion

When will it be Tampa Bay?

We reckon with the guilt and relief of another near miss.
Tourist t-shirts lay in the sand among the ruins of a store on Fort Myers Beach on Thursday, Sep 29, 2022, which was mostly destroyed after Hurricane Ian made landfall overnight on Wednesday.
Tourist t-shirts lay in the sand among the ruins of a store on Fort Myers Beach on Thursday, Sep 29, 2022, which was mostly destroyed after Hurricane Ian made landfall overnight on Wednesday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sep. 30|Updated Oct. 4

The breeze went down like a cool drink Thursday morning in Tampa Bay, a rare offering of dry September air. How could this morning, of all mornings, be open-window beautiful? We were so lucky. Almost providential.

Relief mutated into wretched guilt, a stomach knot of gratitude, confusion and shame for feeling glad. Didn’t we all shuffle around the yard in a zombie state, hardened by numbness?

Hurricane Ian had been barreling straight toward us. Coming for us. This was the one we’d talked about for a century, the one that would blast up the fingers of Tampa Bay, imprisoning the rushing water and destroying our communities. Bully hurricanes had rolled past us before but never followed through on threats.

Ian was it. Ian was so close. Why did nasty, wrathful Ian pivot for Southwest Florida, flattening Fort Myers Beach, ripping the road in Sanibel, attacking people without the same time to prepare? The images coming from those communities are almost too painful to process.

This is Florida’s Faustian Bargain. In exchange for near-constant vacation conditions, we spend six months a year tracking pockets of humidity and low pressure that could wipe out everything we know and love in hours. Tropical Disturbance. Tropical Depression. Tropical Storm. Bottled water. Batteries. Canned tuna. Wait. Wait. Wait. When it arrives, we pinball around the state seeking refuge, sometimes hounded by the storm wherever we go.

We can be honest here, right? The terror gets so wearying. God. Sometimes, I just want to leave. Sometimes I wonder why any of us choose to live in a place where weather catastrophes loom so large that meteorologists become folk heroes. I wonder why we accept this dance with nature, the risk intensifying each year alongside the changing climate.

In the hardest moments, I try to remember why. My family moved from Ohio to Tampa Bay in 1994. We craved the opportunities everyone craves when they sojourn south. Palm trees, warmth, color, adventure, life. My parents didn’t want to die shoveling snow.

Our first experience with a hurricane came a year later at my 12th birthday pool party. Hurricane Allison. The Category 1 wasn’t much to write about compared to others, but you always remember your first. That early season storm made landfall in Big Bend, but the bands churned right on top of an awkward tween party.

Half the girls sucked up the adrenaline and partied harder, pool noodles akimbo. The other half started sobbing in the bedroom while their parents drove back. That turned out to be a solid template for how Floridians respond to hurricanes. There’s always someone jumping in the pool, a little levity being imperative for the mix. If we couldn’t laugh, we would flame out from the anxiety.

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The Pool Jumper, that’s our national reputation. But Florida, despite its wacky, devil-may-care caricature, doesn’t deserve this. No one deserves this. Florida is also full of Bedroom Sobbers, or more accurately, planners, helpers, sensible citizens accounting for danger and caring for others. Florida is not Florida Man.

The importance of that planning has blazed into the sharpest relief ever. Those of us in Tampa Bay who have become a bit complacent in our good fortune? We can sit with the feeling. We can cry out the numbness. Go ahead, do it. You’ll feel better. We can help our hurting neighbors who need all the love they can get right now.

We can take care of our state and its people. We can remember that this Florida life is a special one, a colorful one, a bit feral, weird and unruly, and that’s why we stay, even when the wild kingdom comes to fight.

We can say it. We are so lucky. With a slight sea change, we would not be the ones puttering around our yards, waving at neighbors, picking up stray palm fronds, hoisting bottled water back into storage. We are standing, impossibly, again.

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Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage

HOW TO HELP: Where to donate or volunteer to help Hurricane Ian victims.

TAMPA BAY CLOSURES: What to know about bridges, roads in Ian’s aftermath

WHEN THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.

POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.

WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?

WHAT TO DO IF HURRICANE DAMAGES YOUR HOME: Stay calm, then call your insurance company.

SCHOOLS: Will schools reopen quickly after Hurricane Ian passes? It depends.

MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.

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