Hurricane Irma Mostly Spares Tampa Bay Area Of Florida

Sep 11, 2017
Originally published on September 11, 2017 8:16 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

A lot of people in Florida are looking back at the decisions they made deciding whether to stay or go before Hurricane Irma made landfall. More than a third of the state was ordered to evacuate in anticipation of mass devastation from Irma. Tampa Bay had prepared for the worst, but thanks to a last-minute shift in the storm's path, when people returned today, they found their homes intact. NPR's Leila Fadel spent some time in the area and sent this report.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Don Merritt and his wife, Tommy, are longtime Florida residents, and they've never evacuated in the face of a hurricane. But this time, it sounded serious.

DON MERRITT: Never has there been a hurricane that put the entire state at risk. The entire state was in the cone.

FADEL: For seven days, they went back and forth. Finally this weekend, they chose Tampa. But when they got here, it was in the crosshairs of the storm. Ultimately Tampa was largely spared, as were their two houses.

D. MERRITT: Well, it turns out we didn't have to evacuate, but we didn't know.

FADEL: Don and Tommy Merritt checked on their son's house in Clearwater, very close to the bay.

TOMMIE MERRITT: Oh, I'm just so thankful 'cause I was so afraid that this house would be damaged. It really hurt me more than losing our house.

FADEL: The storm just kept wobbling and sending Floridians zigzagging across the state until they had to settle in and hope for the best. They'd watched the terrifying winds and rain flatten the island of St. Martin, the deadly flooding in Cuba.

Just blocks from the water, Matthew Vasey and his wife, Tiffany, an ER doctor and a nurse practitioner, unlock the door to Matthew's parents' home on a street of manicured lawns and 100- and 200-year-old houses.

MATTHEW VASEY: At this property, we dodged one. And everyone around seems to have a little bit of a look of relief.

FADEL: Relief. Even the power is on. The anticipation and preparation was exhausting. Tiffany munched on nuts, her appetite back after days of worry and preparation. They spent the storm in a shelter to make sure they could care for Matthew's sister, who lives with cerebral palsy. In hindsight, it's hard to believe that over 4 million people were ordered to evacuate. But Tiffany Vasey says it was worth it.

TIFFANY VASEY: It very well could have turned out much differently. So I think it was worth it.

FADEL: The Vaseys only evacuated across town, but others drove for hours, spending money they didn't have on hotel rooms and gas and food to keep themselves safe. Some desperately sought refuge in shelters, and other parts of Florida saw damage that was much worse - flooding in Miami, storm surges in Jacksonville, the Florida Keys, where the extent of the damage is still not clear. NPR's Morning Edition asked Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine if he thought asking people to leave was the right call.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PHILIP LEVINE: If we hadn't done what we did, the results if the hurricane had hit directly would have been absolutely catastrophic.

FADEL: In Tampa, people were keen on getting things back to business as usual. Roberto Torres stopped to check on his coffee shop, Blind Tiger Cafe, in the historic district of Ybor City. Nothing's damaged.

Not even a mug.

ROBERTO TORRES: Not even a mug, yes, woo (ph).

FADEL: Then the phone starts ringing.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

TORRES: Blind Tiger Cafe - this is Roberto. How can I help you? No, but I have some hot coffee if you want to come by (laughter).

FADEL: People are calling to see if the cafe is open just two hours after curfew. Torres will be back in business tomorrow. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Tampa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.