Along Florida coast, some shrug off Idalia evacuation orders

Outside the banana-colored complex off Pass-a-Grille Way, everyone was at work.

Neighbors clustered outside, watching the unusually high tide climb up the seawall as they checked that windows were secure — as much as was possible, anyway.

The tenants of the 14-unit building were among those in the first evacuation zone who had considered the storm and decided to risk riding it out, despite orders to find safer ground. Across the greater Tampa Bay region, some people in the area’s most vulnerable places were bunkering down. They’d stocked up with water and batteries, Lays chips and Cabernet Sauvignon. Some fled for higher ground, though still within the zone at the greatest risk. They trusted that a second or third story would be sturdy enough.

Hurricane Ian, which missed Tampa Bay but devastated Fort Myers last year, was on the minds of many. Some noted Ian’s flooding hadn’t been that bad. Many who had been through several storms were used to the worst thing being the leaving itself. Some who chose to stay said Tuesday they didn’t want to leave animals, didn’t want to get stuck on the roads, didn’t want a hassle they’d regret.

Barb Schueler had been tracking Hurricane Idalia and made the decision with her boyfriend to stay in Pass-a-Grille. They didn’t have pets or elderly relatives to worry about and felt the two of them could handle it. Though, Schueler said, people in Fort Myers must have felt they could handle it, too.

Maybe it was stupid, she said. But they would hope for the best.

Max Sparra, a high school senior, was making sure his neighbors’ windows were taped. He’d been watching the water rise. He knew to calculate several feet on top of what he saw, given the tides and coming storm surge. But he felt good about being on the second story. This is where he lived with his brother, mom and dad. It was hard to imagine leaving even as he thought about the worst-case scenario.

“I stayed for Ian, and then you saw what happened to Fort Myers — it was two-plus stories,” he said. “So you never know, you never know at all.”

His mom, Kelly Sparra, remembered being packed and ready to leave before Ian. Then a neighbor told them the hurricane had turned. They didn’t need to go after all.

With that in mind, they would stay this time.

A few blocks up, water was already seeping into the street.

The calculations being made across Tampa Bay on Tuesday at times involved an imprecise mix of weather forecasts, memories of past storms and gut instincts. But meteorologists and officials urged residents not to discount the predicted 4 to 7 feet of storm surge — the force of which, they warned, could be catastrophic.

The Tampa Bay region was poised to face Hurricane Idalia’s “dirty side” — a catchy descriptor for an ugly cocktail of storm effects, from higher wind speeds to buckets of rain. In the Gulf of Mexico, a storm’s worst effects are typically felt east of its center as it approaches the coast.

When Hurricane Ian hit farther south, Tampa Bay escaped such a blow. Yet Ian also offered a lesson in how a storm can make an unexpected shift and undermine notions of safety. People who’d felt secure on second stories saw their homes split.

Because of Idalia’s timing, storm surge could be particularly brutal for flood-prone Tampa Bay. Wednesday’s full moon, plus high tides, threaten to make storm surge waters an extra 1 to 2 feet higher.

At Shalimar Village, a mobile home community in Port Richey, manager Judy Klingensmith, 63, steered a golf cart slowly through the neighborhood.

She carried a clipboard, ticking off names and addresses. The community is in evacuation zone B, but manufactured and mobile homes are among the first ordered to leave. One by one, she checked in with residents: Staying or going?

Diane and Rick Scott were staying.

The couple sat in their lanai, sipping “hurricane cocktails” from insulated cups. Diane, 54, and Rick, 67, moved down from northern Indiana 11 years ago. There, they got tornadoes.

“With hurricanes at least you have a warning period,” Diane said.

But the warnings, the Scotts said, don’t scare them. They stayed through Irma, lost power for five days, but made food using a gas grill and a turkey fryer.

“The only thing we lost was milk,” Rick said.

Even if the National Hurricane Center forecast a direct hit, the Scotts said they had no plans to go. This was home.

“Where are we going to evacuate to, anyway?” Rick said, lamenting storms’ unpredictability.

“Here, we have fun,” Diane said. She took another sip of her cocktail.

Further south, Jeffery Reese, 59, spent the weekend stocking up on ice in case the power went out at his home in Hollywood Mobile Home Park, a St. Petersburg manufactured community in flood zone A.

“They came here this morning telling everybody to get out,” said Reese, who is attempting to get on Social Security disability after a fall on a job hanging Christmas lights put him out of work. “Man, I’m not getting out. The water might come into our streets, but my mobile home is raised.

“And I’ve got nowhere to go,” he added.

The county’s shelters didn’t feel like an option, Reese said. He didn’t want to leave his boxer terrier mix, Angus, or cat, Lucy, behind. Most shelters take pets but require owners to bring their own carriers.

“Let’s hope this little mobile home makes it through.”

Elsewhere in the city, homeowner Bob Silk was in his front yard, unbothered.

His neighborhood, Venetian Isles, branches out into Tampa Bay with human-dug canals dividing each street. While the community’s waterfront access has spiked home prices here in recent years, its vulnerability to the elements has placed this upscale community deep in an evacuation zone.

“I’m going to wait and see what Idalia does, but I’m not too concerned,” Silk said.

In Pasco County, Gary Mandalozis, 70, wheeled potted plants into his New Port Richey garage.

He and his wife evacuated for two hurricanes in the past. Not this time.

“I just figure with the change of direction it won’t be as bad,” Mandalozis said. The water in the canals lining his street was already lapping the bottom of the docks.

Mandalozis pointed to the house next door. The one across the street. The two on each corner.

“They’re all staying,” he said. “If we have to change our plan, we will.”

In Crystal River, the whine of a drill cut through the heavy afternoon air as a group of men hung plywood sheets on the St. Johns Tavern along North Citrus Avenue.

“I think we’re going to get it pretty good,” said Jeremy Onorato, 41, a friend of the owner. “I think we’re overdue.”

An avid boater, Onorato said the last few storms have bent away from Crystal River. Flooding posed a risk, though: Some side streets near the water flood on high tide days, even without a hurricane.

Onorato lives in an evacuation zone a bit further inland, he said, but planned to stay because his home is new, on an elevated slab and because he has a generator.

Further down the road, Scott Brooks, 65, rode past empty sidewalks on his bicycle, under the water tower that celebrates Crystal River as the “Home of the Manatee.”

Brooks, who has lived in the area for a couple of decades, was still unsure about evacuating from his home by Three Sisters Spring.

“There’s some I stayed for and shouldn’t have,” he said. “There’s some I left for and shouldn’t have.”

But his truck was packed and full of gas. By night, he said, he figured he would decide. “I’ll see what turn it makes.”

Times Staff Writers Zachary T. Sampson, Hannah Critchfield, Max Chesnes and Michaela Mulligan contributed to this report.

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