Did you stay or did you go?

Tampa Bay residents tell their Irma stories — whether they chilled out or fled.

click to enlarge Not totally unscathed, but not obliterated, either, fortunately. - Anthony Martino
Anthony Martino
Not totally unscathed, but not obliterated, either, fortunately.

Look at you, Tampa Bay.

You dodged another windy, rainy bullet...for the most part.

The lead-up, duration and aftermath Hurricane Irma brought to light a wide spectrum of human behavior — from the heroic (neighbors helping neighbors board their windows) to the not-so-heroic (strangers getting into dumb arguments on Facebook over whether evacuating was overkill) to the downright cavalier (walking many a yard into Tampa Bay when the powerful storm sucked up its water).

Here are some of your stories.

I'll go first.

Kate Bradshaw, CL news and politics editor

When a statistician shows concern over a storm's track, that's when you know shit's about to get real. My fiance (the statistician in question) had been away on a work trip all week, thus the window for boarding up our windows — we have many, they are large, I am small — had pretty much passed by the time he got home to St. Pete Thursday night. Before he boarded his flight back, he told me we should consider evacuating, given the Euro model's projected storm track. So I packed a bag. Just in case. He got home around midnight and stayed up till 2 a.m. to get the latest forecast. It didn't look good. Two hours later, After carefully weighing the pros and cons and removing sharp gardening implements from the back yard, he and the dogs and I were on the road to his parents' house in South Carolina. We mostly took back roads and had no problem getting gas. The small South Georgia towns along U.S. 17, with all their boarded up windows, looked like they were in the throes of the zombie apocalypse. Coastal South Carolinians were in the midst of evacuating as we drove through as well. 

The anxiety — over whether our loved ones who stayed would be okay or whether we'd have a home to return to; over whether my wedding dress, freshly tailored and tucked away in a friend's closet, would survive possible flooding or other exposure to hazardous elements; over whether the wedding venue itself, one month out from the wedding, would stay intact — was rough, but we were okay, as were our loved ones.

Some friends, who had planned on staying but got spooked at the last second, made the drive on Sunday.

Plus, from a very safe spot, we got to experience Irma as a tropical storm on Monday, which was pretty bitchin' even if we were without power for quite a few hours.

Even though the doomsday scenario we had in our collective imagination ultimately didn't play out, I am still glad we didn't risk it.

If I could change anything about the lead-up to the storm, it would be some of the media coverage. No, I do not think the local press was in the wrong for stressing what a deadly behemoth Irma was forced to become. Instead, I thought it irresponsible to portray evacuation as nearly impossible as early as the Tuesday and Wednesday before. What they ought to have done was help viewers and readers who wished to evacuate to be smarter about it — download GasBuddy to find available fuel, eschew I-75 in favor of smaller (and more scenic!) backroads. 

Nevertheless, it was beyond thrilling to wake up Monday morning to find that the storm had spared the city/region I am honored to call home — and that the beaches are still intact.

Tim Heberlein, director of operations, Organize Florida

What did you decide?

We stayed in a shelter.


When all of a sudden Irma threatened Tampa Bay as a Cat 4 instead of a Cat 2. I wasn't about to endanger my two boys in my wood frame bungalow. Even if we did board the windows up.

How did you fare?

Good. We stayed at the 5-star Sessums Elementary School shelter, with hot meals and the TV worked until the power went out. I met some great people in the same boat as us. And my cell provider offered free data to those in the storm area, I was able to do with our post-storm community response efforts. It got a little warm, and we were anxious as we had to tell people not to open windows in 100 MPH winds, no matter how hot it got.

What would you would do differently next time?

Buy and cut plywood now. Plan for a few more evacuation options, even as the window of opportunity gets smaller. Don't stress out about water so much, tap water works for most people, If I'm able, volunteer at a shelter. They are always needing more help.

Willi Rudowsky, retired

(Husband) Hal and I made two different sets of reservations on spec on Monday of last week, just in case. We flipped back and forth between go and no-go, and between Austin and Washington D.C. When a friend told us she heard from a resident that Austin was already a madhouse dealing with Harvey refugees, we cancelled that reservation. As the week went on, we could not make up our minds about leaving. Finally, at noon on Thursday, five hours before our outbound flight, we were at Starbucks telling Ashley, the barista that we were still trying to decide. She told us to just go on to D.C. Forget about evacuating from a hurricane; just have a good time on a vacation in a great city. That was just the thing we needed to hear. We were fine until Sunday, enjoying the museums, theater, and restaurants and visiting with friends. Then we turned on the television and that changed everything. We couldn't not pay attention, yet we could not listen to the constant panicked delivery of The Weather Channel and CNN. We were up until 1:30 am Monday, keeping watch on our city.

After the storm, however, we realized that leaving was the right thing to do, even with the angst. We can go home calm, clean and well rested. Now we just need to get a flight out of Washington.

click to enlarge That's the last time we'll ever hear the word "hunker" ...we hope. - Courtesy of Alexis Chamberlain
Courtesy of Alexis Chamberlain
That's the last time we'll ever hear the word "hunker" ...we hope.

Kevin Thurman, marketing consultant

We stayed in Hillsborough. We live in the Channel District inside Zone A by a block. We decided to stay because we live in a hurricane-rated building, but when the 11 PM storm surge warnings came out we evacuated to my in-laws' house in Lutz. We'd be safe either way because we're 30 feet up, but it was nice to be with family and the western track was dangerous so I am glad we left even though it didn't happen. The only thing was we lost power in Lutz, and I was checking our Nest and our condo never lost power in the Channel District. I wouldn't do anything differently. But I am so glad we got back to Channel District in the morning, had coffee, showered and most importantly joined our neighbors for a beer at Pour House, which our neighbor Andy runs. We're leaving for a community BBQ & canned food drive now. Even though it was good to leave it's amazing that we have small business owners in our 1/4 square mile. Michelle at Duckweed gave away perishables on Saturday. Now Eby at Maven Designs is hosting the BBQ. The only thing I would do differently is appreciate my neighbors more before the Hurricane. I will now.

Bert Shelor, flight attendant

Took my 80 year old mom, my dog, two rabbits and a dog I literally had never seen in my life to WMNF to camp out with (my husband) Randy (Wind). I also dragged a cot and a bean bag chair and a sleeping bag. We crammed ourselves into the music office, where a leaking roof was cascading water down the CD shelf behind Flee's desk. Before we headed there, we cooked a pot of chili and baked a dessert to share. There were about 16 people there. It was exciting!! And soundproof!! Best bunker ever!!

Kira Barrera, physical scientist

I stayed. I'm a native, I love my city more than almost anything other than nature herself. I recently went through a divorce and my ex had the kids through the storm and wasn't evacuating, I was not comfortable leaving the state without my children - and the rest of my family (parents, grandmother, sister, niece, uncle) were all here. Additionally, I'm a government employee at the USGS and a NOAA NWS ecological partner and needed to post hurricane briefings 3 times a day, it was hard, I never in my life intended to ride out a cat 4 or 5, but it was a cross your fingers and hope for the best scenario... I stayed with my best friends from middle school (who are married) and my god children (3 & 10) about 10 blocks from my folks house with my dog, we lost power at 3 pm Sunday, played Catan by candle light, cooked dinner on the camp stove, and watched a pre-downloaded movie until the babes went to bed. I charged my laptop at a neighbor's with power so I could post the morning Hurricane update. I don't know what I would've done differently, we tried to prepare for "the storm we never wanted" but in hind sight we weren't even close to being ready for that, it's difficult to discern as a local (and a scientist, I watched and watched the forecasts and briefings!), how many times have we been told to do this before...thankfully we were way over prepared for what we got. We still have no power and are looking forward to getting things together tomorrow and getting back to a normal routine Wednesday or Thursday.

click to enlarge Alexis and crew take it easy while riding the storm out. - Courtesy of Alexis Chamberlain
Courtesy of Alexis Chamberlain
Alexis and crew take it easy while riding the storm out.

Alexis Chamberlain, CL marketing director

We left our house in Hyde Park, but stayed in town and just super prepped! Helped a friend board his house to perfection in Seminole Heights and stocked the house with plenty of food, water, games, alcohol, and good friends (six people and two dogs)! We had a small generator, but never ended up losing power. We couldn't hear much inside because of the house's storm windows so we went outside during various parts of it and it never seemed too too bad (luckily), but the curfew was definitely needed - nobody should have been out and about in it! We established tornado plans and had emergency bags packed and looked up the closest shelters just in case. It was crazy trying to stay updated the current path - it kept changing so much! The MyRadar app was great. All in all, it definitely helped to be with a group of prepared friends!

Susan Bridges, small business owner

I stayed. My son is here and refused to leave. I was thinking about flying out to see relatives. I kept watching the path of the storm and just decided to stay.

I fared great; Stayed with my son. No damage never lost power.

I'm driving for Uber and Lyft so the worst problem is finding gas.

People were ridiculous when I would stop for gas at one of the very last places open.

Media had people crazed.

It was kinda dangerous but I'm tough.

Blake Yeager, musician

I don't know that my story is a real page turner but I stayed put. I certainly understand the choice to leave, for safety and peace of mind but I wanted to stay to protect my guitars, cameras and cat. I also predicted by the time it hit Tampa it would be a cat 1 or tropical storm due to previous storms outcomes for our area so I felt safe enough. I live in Hyde park but stayed in Seminole heights in a less safe structure to prevent boredom. I also certainly see the point of being cautious and warning people to the max to prepare people for a worst case scenario but I feel our access and addiction to unfiltered social media and news caused an immense increase of hysteria which was entertaining but not necessarily helpful. I compare it in a way to the wildfire of excitement ignited by anything from our president's daily missteps, to a celebrity divorce, or even a piano-pawing cat. I certainly took part in it (my $45 Verizon data overage charges will prove it) more out of boredom than weather update seeking, as it was hard to filter out the, dare I say it, "fake news". It seemed there was a great separation from local to national news also, which is understandable, but the loved ones and evacuees seemed to have a slightly escalated picture of the horror ensuing than we did locally. This in turn caused many non Floridians to reach out regularly and aggressively with apocalyptic warning calls, which of course caused major stress and pressure on those of us who stayed put (as if we weren't stressed enough). Maybe a little tmi, I'm still bored obviously, as my power is still out in Hyde park. My cat Blue and I are refugees at harbor island until power returns, which is lovely. The less tangent-ful report is.. I stayed in my condo in Hyde Park as I was not overly concerned the storm would be a catastrophic threat in my area, to avoid the efforts of leaving my home and things behind and traveling amidst the madness, and I have a potentially dangerous thrill-seeking fetish. After numerous upsetting calls from loved ones to abort, I found the compromise of staying with some friends in an older block Seminole heights house, slightly north of my flood-prone condo in Soho. We never lost power, had minimal wind damage, very little water, and slept through the height of the storm. We ate protein bars and drank a small percentage of our cornucopia of bottle water until even Narcos couldn't keep us awake.

My personal highlights were definitely the satirical fb events such as "tell Irma she's a strong independent woman, and she don't need no land", the reports of Purge-style door to door robberies taking place all over the Heights (many compared the sound of the burglars knocking to the likeness of a strong wind gust, then when they opened the door, no one but the wind was there) and certainly the unexpected sabbatical from life spent with friends and family watching our unpredictable planet and questionably prediction-capable radars provide us with this dose of "our reality" in a wildly entertaining manner. I'm certainly glad things were not worse and feel for the people who suffered damage and inconvenience.

Dana Gilmore, retired

I started paying closer attention to the news coverage last weekend. That's when I made my game plan. You gotta have a game plan for these things.

I started making preliminary preparations like packing my bug out bag and picking an escape route. I decided to head straight up 19 if needed. I knew it'd be a bit congested. But it moves better heading out of St Pete since its been improved with overpasses. And it opens up pretty well north of Pasco.  Plus I figured nobody in their right mind would travel west first for the privilege of driving North on 19 from St Petersburg. And the Skyway would close. So no traffic from the south. I thought the dog and I might head for Yankeetown or Ocala or Gainesville so we'd be agile to move NE or NW ahead of the central and south FL throngs. I also decided to pay more attention to the storm track. And make the decision to stay or go sometime Wednesday.

By Wednesday afternoon I decided that better than even chances were that the eye wall would stay west of us which is best case scenario. So we're staying. Went out to top off the tank and pick up some last minute food stuffs. That's when I realized this whole area was heading for cray-cray land. Hot tempers at gas station. Panic-stricken faces cleaning out grocery store shelves. Etc., etc. I did manage to engage with a few kindred spirits and shared a chuckle with them in passing.  That was fun.

On Thursday one of my neighbors in Historic Uptown heard a commotion and opened his door to find a naked man gyrating on 5th Street North yelling Fuck Me!  Fuck Me! My neighbor was not inclined to do so, and called the police. The cops recognized the naked man. And surmised that his performance was his way of getting safe room and board during the coming storm. Well, he had a plan! A Sunstar ambulance soon appeared to oblige him. 

By Friday it was apparent that we few year round residents here at the over 55 freak compound were all staying. So we sorta powwowed and sorta decided that even those of us who don't particularly like each other were in the same boat now. So we'd sorta try our best to sorta get through this thing together. Then it was just a question of watching and waiting.

On Saturday the authoritarian members of our little geriatric Lord of the Flies cast started with the rules. Which I felt obligated to at least question if not oppose. Partly as a progressive responsibility. And partly out of boredom. It was a nice break from the incessant doom-and-gloom TV coverage.  I also tried to calm down as best I could a few hurricane newbies. One or two of whom were close to meltdown after staying glued to the media for far too long. Bay News 9 had a shrink on who advised viewers to switch to a non-news channel or watch a funny Netflix movie or just turn everything off and focus on breathing for half an hour. Then get back to doing what needed to be done with a refreshed mind. That was the best TV advice during the whole event. They didn't repeat that segment.

I stayed up late Saturday night cooking previously frozen and perishable food. Then refreezing it to move to an ice chest and then eat it as it thawed over the following days or week(s).  Late Sunday morning I enjoyed a good hot shower. Then scrubbed the bath tub and filled it with water.  Made final final preps at my place. Then went to a neighbor's hurricane party. We watched as the wind started picking up pretty good. We saw the blue light and heard the loud buzz of a transformer burning out as all the lights on the other side of 9th Avenue North went out. That was when the dog and I decided to retreat to my abode and get my hand cranked light (with a USB charging socket) and battery/hand crank radio at hand while waiting for the power to fail.

We sat. And waited. And adjusted the AC and the fridge as cold as they could go. And watched TV. And waited for the power to go out. And watched the eye wall pass to the north of us on TV. And thought about posting on social media that we miraculously still had power. But decided not to do that because we didn't want to jinx it like talking about a no hitter in the bottom of the 7th inning. Then we went to sleep and woke up still with power and no damage.

Feeling very lucky. And very sorry for all the folks who weren't so lucky.

John Rodriguez, Appraiser I, Hillsborough County Property Appraiser's office

I decided to shelter in place at my home in West Tampa. Since I paid my mortgage off a few year's back this is my single most valuable possession. More than that this neighborhood is where my family has lived for the past 100 years so the desire to defend the castle overrode other considerations. After listening to Irma's howling winds pass over, I suspect that REO Speedwagon song "Riding the Storm Out" will have a special resonance for me. I lost cable/internet at midnight as Irma passed through which robbed me of the strangely calming distraction of monitoring its track. Two days later I'm still without cable/internet but feeling very fortunate overall. Traffic signals are still down in West Tampa, but that doesn't seem to have affected many of my neighbors who regard the signals as more as more of a suggestion than a rule.

David Warner, CL editor-in-chief

I remembered the feeling from living in NY after 9/11 — the gnawing sense that there was nowhere safe, that everything could be destroyed at any minute. But this time the dread was fed by certainty — the certainty that a huge historic storm was going to hit us full on. Hell was coming.

My husband and I don’t live in an evacuation zone, so we’d always been pretty certain that we wouldn’t evacuate during a hurricane — that we could even turn our home into a refuge for friends who did have to leave their homes. But what occurred to us perhaps too late was that evacuation zones are meant to protect people from floods — that if Cat 4 winds hit our 90-plus-year-old house on a hill in St. Pete, we’d be in just as much trouble as waterfront residents of Zone A. But by the time we figured that out, it was too late to flee. And we remembered all too well what happened with Charlie in 2004, the first year we lived in the area, when evacuees from Tampa fled right into the storm’s path.

Our house has a lot of windows — something like 25. A former resident had commissioned custom-made hurricane shutters for them, but those were gone now (a subsequent occupant decided to throw them out). And there was no way we had the time, or the energy, to plywood them all, and besides, plywood? It was way too late to find enough to do the job. I took photos of all those outside windows — to show to insurers, yes, but also to remember — because it seemed possible that pretty soon some of them, or even all of them, could be gone.

So we waited it out. Someone on Facebook posted Tom Petty’s “The Waiting,” which was all too appropriate. Waiting wasn’t just hard, it was agony. (Someone else on Facebook called the feeling ‘pre-traumatic stress syndrome.”) I wandered around the house envisioning everything ruined. And when those first winds boomed against our ancient living-room windows, those fears got terribly real.

The power going out on Sunday night was in some way a blessing, silencing the beat-beat-beat of hurricane news on TV. Yes, the sounds of the wind were no longer being drowned out by Chris Cuomo’s melodramatics, but we drank more wine and I read Larry a novel from my Kindle and… we went to bed, downstairs, because the furniture in the upstairs bedroom, the most vulnerable, was covered in garbage bags -- our weak defense in case the storm battered rain through all those upstairs windows.

And we fell asleep. Don’t know how. Exhaustion, no doubt. And in the morning we woke to good news. And the realization that we’d dodged, in the mayor of Miami’s words, not a bullet but “a cannon.”

But now we knew. We knew how terrifying an approaching storm could get. We were freshly aware of what we might have lost.

And now we’re looking into hurricane shutters.

Cathy Salustri, CL arts & entertainment editor

I am not one to panic over storms. People kept texting, asking "are you evacuating" and I kept texting back, no. We live in a block home 30-some feet above sea level, with a four-year-old roof and hurricane windows. We have six oaks I desperately wish would come down (they didn't), but other than that, we've landscaped with storms in mind. I was not worried about my home. 

I was worried about the town museum; I'm the president of the Gulfport Historical Society and every scrap of our history lives in a frame church built in the 1910s. Insurance can't replace what Irma would have taken had we had a worse storm. One of our board members grabbed what photos he could find; other board members removed electronics. There was no way to get the research, photos, and artifacts out and safe in time. The city had put storm shutters on our windows. Other board members moved things off the ground. Flooding wasn't my concern; the tiny pine building losing a roof to wind or trees was, and no amount of storm shutters or elevation wouldn't matter.

Sunday afternoon my fiancé and I went to the museum. I had thoughts of grabbing... well, anything, really... but once I stood inside the museum, I was paralyzed: How to choose what to save? We have filing cabinets of research; huge ledgers of property tax records dating to the 1920s; china from a long-ago waterfront hotel. 

In the end, I grabbed a handful of what we call "house books" — home-by-home historical records that could help some property owners get historic designations for their homes. Much of our history, I should note, was kept by prior boards who disinclined to save things digitally. I've always been grateful they kept it at all and the board agrees we should digitize, but we're volunteer-run and it's a slow process.

The building held. Miraculously, the numerous oaks encircling the building lost their branches away from the roof and the gorgeous old windows. 

And next week our board will create a plan for the next time, when we might not be so lucky.

Ted Cruz, N/A*

My family and I decided to leave our home in St. Petersburg to flee Hurricane Irma, which the National Weather Service predicted as hitting us directly as either a category 2 or category 4 storm, either potentially horrific or catastrophic, respectively. Even though my house was boarded up and we live on relatively high ground, our house is older and is only about 3 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, and so whether we could have withstood that powerful of a storm and storm surge would really have been up to chance, thus I made the decision to take my wife and kids to a hotel in Kissimmee, just west of Orlando in Central Florida.

Luckily for us, the storm lurched eastward after making landfall in Southwest Florida, and in fact ended up passing right over where we were staying, but significantly weakened by traversing the land and with much less chance for flooding inland. I came home to find my house barely impacted, with the power on, which is more than can be said for most of the state.

So I feel very fortunate, but faced with the decision all over again, I would have done the exact same thing, even though it was difficult, stressful, and expensive. This is because although our state went through a collective bout of confused hysteria due to the ever-changing forecasts for the storm track, we are nevertheless compelled to rely on the experts who are the most qualified to make those projections for what was undoubtedly a massive and deadly storm, based on vast but incomplete information and learned but uncertain speculations.

This is how I think we need to think about climate change. No, the science isn't completely in, but when is it ever completely in on anything? Factors keep evolving, and we'll continue getting and applying new information, but when it is nearly the unanimous consensus of climatologists around the world that human activity is exacerbating the warming of the planet, leading to sea level rise and more intense storms, we are compelled by those threats to make decisions based on the science we have now, and adjust those decisions as needed as the science develops. Our state governor and our president have made it policy that government agencies cannot even use the phrase climate change in communications among themselves and to the public. We should all at least be able to agree that closing off even the possibility of discussing what is well-documented, if incomplete science is the worst possible tact, with potentially deadly consequences.

My hat's off to the federal, state, and local authorities, as well as to the people of Florida, who thoroughly and efficiently prepared and responded to Irma, armed with the best data available. I urge them all to do the same with respect to climate change; Irma was merely a symptom of this larger threat.

*Name has been changed; the author of this vignette wished to remain anonymous.

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