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Hurricane Irma: Scenes from Tampa Bay's last day of preparation (and partying)

William Blake, left, helps his parents Elena and George Blake fill sandbags Saturday along with a handful of others at Davis Islands Beach. George Blake says his family ran out of time before picking up sandbags from the city of Tampa. 
William Blake, left, helps his parents Elena and George Blake fill sandbags Saturday along with a handful of others at Davis Islands Beach. George Blake says his family ran out of time before picking up sandbags from the city of Tampa. 
Published Sep. 10, 2017

Some turned frustration into productivity, stuffing beach sand into trash bags. Others cut loose for half-priced cocktails, stir-crazy after a week of stark warnings on TV.

Tampa Bay residents spent their final full day before Hurricane Irma's unwelcome visit in wait. But they did a lot more than that, too.

Largo High School

Michel Bryant stood in a line of 75 people for shelter at Largo High School on Saturday morning.

He wasn't evacuating. He was holding a place in line for an elderly woman who needed to evacuate.

Bryant stood in line for almost an hour, letting the woman cool off in his taxi.

"The line was long, and she was 90 years old," he said. "I didn't even think twice about it."

Bryant, 58, has been a driver for BATS Taxi in St. Pete Beach for about five years.

Largo police Sgt. Haley Sequeira, who was overseeing the line of evacuees waiting to check in, said the older woman was upset when she saw the long check-in line.

"(Bryant) looked right at her and offered to wait in line," Sequeira said. "I just thought he was amazing. It made my day a little better."

Davis Islands

When the city of Tampa closed its sandbag operation, some South Tampa residents got creative.

Armed with trash and canvas bags, a handful of residents on Saturday morning headed to Davis Islands Beach to make improvised sandbags to shore up doorways and patio doors.

George Blake and his family shoveled the white fine sand into 10 black trash bags and a few canvas bags and loaded them onto the back of their navy blue pickup.

"We thought, 'Where's not out of sand?' " said William Blake, 19. "And then we realized it's the beach."

With the other preparations he and his family made for their home near Hyde Park, they hadn't had time to get to the official city sandbag operation.

"They closed the sandbag centers yesterday, and we were upset about that," George Blake said.

University of Tampa student Jack Cassidy and his friends filled about 20 trash bags with sand. They planned to board up the front door of the home they rent near S Howard Avenue.

A Colorado native, Cassidy, 21, has never been through a hurricane.

"I'm feeling nervous for sure," he said.

Central Ave. 'Irma-geddon'

Jim Ross, 60, sat at the bar of SubCentral at Iberian Rooster as the Alabama-Fresno State football game played on a large screen behind him. Cocktails flowed around him and guests helped themselves to a buffet of Portuguese food while bright blue skies shone outside.

Ross heard about the "Irma-geddon" themed party when a friend said they were interested in the event, so he walked from his downtown St. Petersburg office to check it out.

"All my other co-workers have fled or have hunkered down," he said.

Ross lived in Houston when Hurricane Alicia tore through Texas in 1983, and remembers stepping outside when he saw the weather calmed only to see the eye of the storm.

"I'd hoped I wouldn't have to go through it again," he said. "But I'm going to make light of the situation this time."

Business had been slow at the Iberian Rooster the last few days, said front of house manager Kyle Hill, and the restaurant debated whether to close. Instead, they decided to throw an Irma-geddon themed party with a treat: 50 percent off bar tabs.

"Originally, we were going to do it just for the employees, as a family, to stick together," Hill said. "Then we said, 'Let's do it for all of St. Pete, sort of as a morale booster.' It's been kind of scary."

Micah Harris, 48, said he is used to hurricanes, but his wife, Maria Cruz, is not.

"My wife was bored at home and I wanted to get her mind off the so-called impending doom that's about to come," Harris said. "To me, the whole thing is overblown. You can't just watch TV all day and hang on to these guys' every word. You'll go crazy."

Pasco County

At the Pasco emergency operations center, officials and media members crowded into a small room for a news conference. In the next room, more than 100 county emergency employees were gathered around computers, tracking and preparing for the storm.

Outside, workers unloaded cases of water in the sunshine as wind — the county's first taste of Irma's strength — rolled through the parking lot.

Superintendent Kurt Browning joined officials for the county's second emergency briefing of the day, urging residents to take shelter before it gets dark and windy and praising district employees for volunteering.

"We put out an all-call to district staff to come out and help at shelters, and they have answered the call," Browning said. "We feel better going into overnight."

Cafeteria at USF

Hundreds of people of all ages and speaking a multitude of languages crowded into the cafeteria of Pizzo Elementary School on the University of South Florida campus.

They were served hamburgers, tater tots, fruit salad and milk for lunch as they waited an hour or longer for wrist bands and room assignments at the school, one of dozens that have been designated as storm shelters.

Michelle McGlone, 52 and disabled with multiple sclerosis, chose to wait outside in her car with neighbor Cindy Sentmanat. They were grateful to find the shelter, although concerned when they learned of a 9:30 p.m. bedtime. "With MS, I'm up all night," McGlone said.

J.C. Lee, who is 31 and homeless, sat with Debra Hosey, who was waiting with 10 family members, including four young grandchildren.

The adults in the group told the children, "This is like a little vacation," and packed coloring books and crayons, Hosey said. "You know, the things grandmothers do."

St. Pete waterfront

Inside the lobby of the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront, a steady stream of guests headed toward the elevators lugging massive suitcases, big-screen TVs and the occasional yapping dog.

The high-rise hotel across from Al Lang Stadium sits in the B zone designated for mandatory evacuation, but guests and hotel employees planned to ride out Irma inside the hotel.

"It's packed, sold out, and they say they have generators and very strong windows," said St. Petersburg resident Tony Griskey, who was staying there along with his daughter, granddaughter and son-in-law, who were second-guessing their decision to evacuate to St. Petersburg from Boca Raton.

Guests said they had been assured that even if the lobby floods, an extra generator had been brought in and that the nearly 40-year-old building is sturdily built and safe.

A few blocks north, however, anxious guests were clearing out of the Hampton Inn & Suites St. Petersburg Downtown. As soon as Pinellas officials ordered a mandatory evacuation of Zone B, general manager Karl Johansson said he had no choice but to clear the hotel.

"Mandatory is mandatory," he said.

Mary Ann Brinegar, 81, had felt so on the ball when she and her husband checked into the Hampton Inn on Tuesday after deciding to evacuate from Fort Myers.

"Now I feel like this is so last minute," she said, loading her car to head to a niece's home in Tampa.

Nearby Beach Drive, normally filled with locals and tourists shopping, walking dogs or sitting at sidewalk cafes with crab cakes and chardonnay, was silent and empty. Outdoor furniture was gone, umbrellas down and tightly bound. Plywood covered the windows of popular restaurants.

A lone street performer sat in front of BellaBrava playing his trumpet next to an open case containing a few dollar bills. He told a passer-by he thought making music was the right thing to do. He was playing Stormy Weather.

Reporting by Allison Graves, Christopher O'Donnell, Divya Kumar, Adam C. Smith, Megan Reeves, Marlene Sokol and Katherine Snow Smith.


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