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Should I stay or should I go? Tampa residents weigh their options as Hurricane Ian approaches

Man and woman stand with shovels in a line of people at a sandbag filling station.
Stephanie Colombini
/
WUSF Public Media
Gary Genao and Lara Stack waited in line for hours to fill sandbags at a city-run site in south Tampa. Genao said he plans to hunker down at home, while Stack said she will evacuate inland and stay with family.

Hundreds of thousands of residents in the region are under mandatory evacuation orders, though some still plan to hunker down.

Tampa area residents are bracing for Hurricane Ian as it makes its way toward the state, with forecasters expecting it to first make landfall in Cuba.

Hundreds of thousands of residents living in coastal areas are under mandatory evacuation orders, with county officials recommending others in low-lying areas leave their homes as well.

On Monday morning, people waited for hours to fill sandbags at a city-run site in south Tampa, a community where streets can turn into rivers after just a few hours of rain. If Ian pushes more water in from the coast, it could cause serious damage.

People stand around a large pile of sand shoveling it into plastic bags.
Stephanie Colombini
/
WUSF Public Media
Crowds of people flocked to a sandbag filling station in South Tampa on Monday morning in the hopes of protecting their homes from any flooding Hurricane Ian may cause.

“The surge is definitely our biggest concern, storm surge,” said Davis Island resident Lissie Zimmerman.

The second grade teacher stood in line holding a glass case. Crawling inside was a yellow and brown critter, the class pet she took home when area schools closed for the next few days.

“This is Princess Sophia, the leopard gecko, she is evacuating with us,” said Zimmerman, who said she planned to stay with family in South Florida, where she thinks she’ll be out of harm’s way.

Zimmerman was living on the island five years ago when Hurricane Irma threatened Tampa but changed paths at the last minute.

“We were lucky, we got very lucky for Irma, so hoping for the same luck with Ian,” she said.

A leopard gecko crawls around a glass container, held by a woman.
Stephanie Colombini
/
WUSF Public Media
Elementary school teacher Lissie Zimmerman is helping her class pet, a leopard gecko named Princess Sophia, evacuate from the storm.

Morgan Molinari, who lives right on Tampa Bay, was hoping for similar fortune. For Irma, her family evacuated to Orlando and she expected to do the same this time.

“We're used to it [storms], but this one's scaring us a little more than usual, and I have a baby this time, so it's a little different,” she said.

Charles Dunn was still figuring out where to go, but said once he finished prepping his home he was going to head east, possibly to Orlando or West Palm Beach.

“I lived in South Florida for awhile so I’m used to it more over there than over here,” he said.

LIVE BLOG: Latest updates on Hurricane Ian across the Tampa Bay area

It’s been years since Tampa had a direct hit from a hurricane, and with thousands of people moving to the area each year, many residents are dealing with this for the first time.

Charles Michaels moved to South Tampa from Los Angeles earlier this year and said he had to ask a young woman in line for help with prep.

“I said, 'What do you do for these sort of things?' And she taught me how to fill a sandbag, which I didn't know, how to tie a sandbag, and she said, ‘You know this isn't my first rodeo,’ and I said, ‘This is my first rodeo,’” he said.

Michaels planned to head away from the storm too — far away.

“My bride booked a flight to Paris and we're leaving tomorrow for Paris,” he explained.

Two older woman and an older man stand in line at a sandbag filling station.
Stephanie Colombini
/
WUSF Public Media
Charles Michaels stands with his wife Cynthia Schaff (left) and friend Leslie Harvey (center) in line at the sandbag station. Michaels and Schaff decided to take a last-minute vacation to Paris when they learned about the storm, while Harvey plans to stay put.

Not everyone has that luxury, and counties are opening emergency shelters for those with no place to go. Officials like Hillsborough County Administrator Bonnie Wise stressed residents should consider these a last resort.

“They are not comfortable places, they could be crowded and they could be noisy, and you could be in a shelter for days, again that could be for days,” she said during a press conference Monday morning.

Wise suggested people in evacuation zones find friends or family to stay with instead, which is what Lara Stack planned to do.

She said she would stay with family in Wesley Chapel unless that too was deemed dangerous. Stack has only lived in the Tampa area for about a year, but is no stranger to storms.

She lived in Mississippi when Hurricane Katrina hit her community in 2005 and chose not to evacuate that time to stay with her grandparents. Homes in Stack’s neighborhood suffered severe damage, she said, and being stuck there for days without power after the storm was hard on her family.

“So you've got to take it very seriously with these, and it’s better to be safe than be sorry,” Stack said, urging residents to stock up on supplies.

Stack stood holding shovels with Gary Genao, a long-time Florida resident who had different plans.

“I’m sticking around, going to hunker down,” said Genao, a property adjuster who said he wanted to keep a close eye on his home.

Man stands in line at sandbag filling station.
Stephanie Colombini
/
WUSF Public Media
Todd Frazier wasn't sure if he would evacuate or not yet as of Monday, but said he was preparing for potential power outages regardless.

Todd Frazier was still on the fence about whether he would stay at his house or crash with friends who live in high-rise apartments. For now he was focused on getting prepared.

“Mentally just kind of meditating, and stocking up on ice mostly, so everything stays frozen in the fridge in case we lose power.”

People planning to shelter in place have been clearing store shelves of water and non-perishable goods. Gov. Ron DeSantis said retailers are working to resupply their stores and urged people not to “panic buy.”

But he stressed though the exact path of this storm isn't certain, everyone should take it seriously.

“Make sure you have your plan in place, finish whatever preparations you have, I mean this thing is coming this week and we know that and we know we're going to have some major impacts throughout the state of Florida,” DeSantis said during a Monday morning update in Tallahassee.

The state has suspended tolls on roads in the area to make travel easier while it's still safe to drive.

DeSantis said he also activated search and rescue teams along with 5,000 Florida National Guard members and with 2,000 guardsmen from neighboring states so they are ready to respond if needed.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
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