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Despite damage, some Manatee County residents say they fared well during Hurricane Ian

flooded street with downed tree branches
Stephanie Colombini
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WUSF Public Media
People who visited Anna Maria Island on Thursday said they were dealing with power outages and minor storm damage, but ultimately felt grateful Ian had spared them the worst.

Folks visiting Anna Maria Island say their hearts are with the people of Southwest Florida, who suffered catastrophic damage from the storm.

Many residents in the Tampa Bay region are feeling lucky after Hurricane Ian spared them from the more severe damage it inflicted on other parts of Florida.

But signs of the storm were still evident on the barrier islands of Manatee County on Thursday, a day after the storm made landfall in Southwest Florida. More than 100,000 people in the county were without power as of Thursday afternoon. Still residents say things could have been much worse.

Driving onto Anna Maria Island, there were downed palm trees and broken store signs. Some traffic lights were out and the occasional street was covered in floodwater. But the clearest remnant of Ian's presence was on the beach, where wind howled and the usually calm Gulf of Mexico waters were filled with choppy waves. Windows on waterfront condos and homes were shuttered to protect against the storm.

This was one of many coastal communities in the region where officials ordered residents to evacuate as Hurricane Ian was forecast to hit the Tampa area. But not everyone left, hoping it would steer clear as it did.

Young man stands and smiles along the beach
WUSF Public Media
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Stephanie Colombini

Zack Ciejack, 28, chose to stay behind.

“I hunkered the fort down and stayed as safe as possible and made sure my house didn't flood and just rode it out,” he said as he walked along the beach.

He wasn't entirely unscathed by Ian but was in bright spirits.

“I don't have power, I don't have water, but it's alright,” Ciejak said. “I'm just glad everybody's safe and the island is still attached.”

Flooding outside an apartment complex
Stephanie Colombini
/
WUSF Public Media
Some streets were flooded and several traffic lights were out, but ultimately there was minimal damage on Anna Maria Island.

The scene here was a stark contrast to the devastation farther south, where catastrophic storm surge flooded places like Fort Myers and Sanibel Island, the latter of which became cut off from the mainland when Ian wiped away parts of its causeway.

The plight of their fellow Floridians wasn't lost on Ciejak or others walking the beach, like Emma Mersch.

“Fort Myers, oh my goodness I can't believe it, I feel so bad, oh my gosh, like that's crazy,” said Mersch, 21.

She lives inland in Parrish but came to the beach with her boyfriend Austin Dodson to watch the waves. He was skimboarding along the shore and said he was grateful to have that chance.

“I thought this was going to flood, I thought this island was going to flood,” said Dodson, 23.

Man and woman stand along the beach. She holds a beach chair and gear, he holds a skimboard.
Stephanie Colombini
/
WUSF Public Media
Emma Mersch and Austin Dodson say they felt terrible about Ian's destruction in Southwest Florida.

They remembered Hurricane Irma five years ago, which Mersch said damaged her mother's home on the island and left her without power for weeks. Though they fared better this time, Mersch said seeing what happened in other parts of the state reminds them to always take hurricanes seriously.

“Make sure you follow everything that everyone's telling you, it's just so unpredictable, so just always get out of there, I guess,” she said.

Justin and Amber Poole agreed. The Sarasota Springs residents brought their kids to check out the beach because they had evacuated their home to stay with a friend nearby. They said they worried residents who didn’t suffer much damage this time would get a false sense of security, as has happened in the past.

“We were putting up the shutters on our house and our neighbors are like, ‘Oh, y’all are those people?’ And we’re like, I guess we are those people, and then two-three hours later, they were doing the same thing,” said Justin Poole, 42.

Woman and man stand with their children, a young girl and a boy in front of a sand dune.
Stephanie Colombini
/
WUSF Public Media
Amber and Justin Poole have been in touch with some loved ones in Southwest Florida but are still trying to reach others.

While several people on the beach said they were relieved to hear from family members in Southwest Florida that they were safe as rescue efforts continue, others said they were anxiously trying to reach loved ones.

Amber Poole, 41, said she hadn’t heard from her boss, who lives in Bonita Springs, an area hit hard by storm surge.

“The news footage didn’t look good, so I’m just hoping that they did evacuate their house and went further inland, I’m just hoping it’s okay,” she said.

Tampa Bay officials have pledged to support their neighbors to the south to help rebuild.

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.