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As storm nears, Tampa Bay beach towns empty while residents prepare

Dec 08, 2023

In the parking lot behind Gulfport’s neighborhood center, Raul Guasp squatted beside a tower of sand Monday, tying his last bag.

He and his wife live by the marina, only a few feet from the water, and wanted to stack sandbags along their front door and garage before then-Tropical Storm Idalia came closer.

“We’re just trying to prepare, get ready what we can,” said Guasp, 68, who recently retired. “My wife, she gets really worried.”

The Guasps were among the thousands of Tampa Bay residents trying to prepare for the storm closing in on Florida’s west coast. As the day wore on, and Floridians filled their grocery carts with bottled water and Bud Light, ran to the ATM and topped off their gas tanks, some were ready to hunker down and ride it out. Others reserved rooms in Orlando and on the east coast.

And many struggled to decide: Should I stay? Or go?

Last year, as Hurricane Ian spun offshore, Guasp and his wife evacuated to stay with relatives in Lakeland. Though the destruction in Fort Myers frightened them, they weren’t planning to leave this time. “It wasn’t worth it,” Guasp said.

About 20 other people were there shoveling sand. Residents were allowed to fill 10 bags each. By noon, people had hauled away more than 5,000. After Guasp loaded his into his trunk, he stayed to help.

• • •

On the other side of Boca Ciega Bay, the Pinellas beaches were eerily empty.

Along Gulf Boulevard, from Pass-a-Grille to Clearwater, few cars traveled in either direction on the usually clogged route. Landscaping trucks and law enforcement vehicles made up most of the traffic. Many restaurants and shops were shuttered.

Workers carried chairs and canvas canopies off the beaches. Nearly every hotel sign said, “Vacant.”

Elizabeth Robson was manning Paradiso boutique in Pass-a-Grille about 1 p.m. when someone started screwing plastic window shields onto the shop across the street. Her store had sandbags beside the beach umbrellas out front, but nothing covering the wide windows and no plan — yet — about when to close.

“I’m nervous,” said Robson, thinking of Hurricane Ian. “With climate change, everything is just getting worse. It’s real.”

She hadn’t decided whether to leave. Her home is in Vina Del Mar, an island just over a bridge from the beach. “I’m waiting to see what happens,” she said. “I just put the wind app on my phone.”

Only four customers had come in. “I think everyone’s either gone, at home preparing, or watching their TV.”

She was trying to stay hopeful. “Last night, I saw a rainbow. Then a dolphin swam right under it. That has to mean something, right?”

• • •

A few doors down, at Shadrack’s bar, a dozen regulars were drinking beer, wondering if the storm would turn. Some had never experienced a hurricane. One planned to throw a party, another to escape to Melbourne.

Biscuit Shannon, 51, a lifelong Floridian who has tended bar there for 25 years, said, “I could care less about this storm. Doesn’t phase me at all.”

She has a block house on “high ground” in Pinellas Park. “I never evacuate,” she said. “I open my doors, blow up the air mattresses, fill the empty vodka bottles with water and have everyone ride it out.”

Since she loves to drink through a hurricane, her husband stays sober: “Someone has to keep a level head during the storm.”

“What’s this one called again?” a customer asked from the corner.

“I don’t know. Can’t pronounce it,” said someone else.

A woman set down her Budweiser bottle and insisted loudly, “Let’s talk about something else.”

• • •

At Paradise Grille on St. Pete Beach, cook Dominic Marone, 21, stared at the waterfront patio of empty picnic tables. Normally, by noon on a Monday, he would have served 100 customers. But just before 3 p.m., he’d only had 40 orders.

“It’s been dead — very dead — all day,” he said. “But it doesn’t surprise me. People are all worked up about this storm.”

He grew up in Florida, but last year’s hurricane was a turning point. “I never realized how much danger we actually were in until I saw what happened to Fort Myers,” he said. “We got incredibly lucky.”

Marone lives in a ground-floor apartment in downtown St. Petersburg and didn’t plan to evacuate. “I’ve got about 10 family members who live on the beach, and they’re all coming to bunk in with me tonight,” he said.

His family had never left their beach homes before, but after Ian, they decided to at least get away from the water.

• • •

Zuri Peth’s family had planned to stay on Treasure Island through Thursday. Peth, 33, had rented an Airbnb with her sister and brother-in-law, who had come from Minnesota.

But about 4 p.m., they stood in the parking lot of the public beach access, brushing sand off their feet, loading towels into their SUV. “Our place is in an A evacuation zone, so we have to get out by tonight,” said Anthony Feeter, 35. “We’re heading back to her house in Orlando right now.”

The family insisted they weren’t disappointed. They won’t get most of their money back. But they had a beautiful Monday on the sand — and the beach almost to themselves.

“You gotta take these storms seriously,” Peth said. “They didn’t get a warning in Maui, and look at the loss of lives.”

“We got a warning,” she said. “So we’re getting out.”

• • •

If the storm turned into a hurricane, as forecasted, and even some of the predicted surge caused the Intercoastal Waterway to rise, Lex Raas knew his beloved boats would be submerged.

So about 5 p.m., he and a crew of volunteers gathered beside the Clearwater Community Sailing Center to haul six-man outrigger canoes onto a long trailer to take to his son’s house.

The 45-foot racing vessels weighed 120 pounds each and needed four sets of hands to lift them. Each cost about $25,000.

“We’re just preparing for the worst, hoping for the best,” said Raas, 68, sweating. “Even if the storm misses us, these would all be underwater.”

Raas lives in an A evacuation zone, and was waiting to decide whether he would stay — or follow the boats to his son’s house on higher ground.

Behind him, fishing vessels had been anchored in the middle of the waterway, far from docks that could cause damage. In front of him, people were saving the rest of the canoes. Someone waved Raas over: They needed his help.

The man’s black T-shirt read: “It could always be worse.”

• • •

What to know about forecast tracks as Idalia looms over Florida

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Protect your home and business before the storm

7 lessons for the 2023 hurricane season from Hurricane Ian.