'We dodged a bullet': As Ian moves across Florida, residents survey damage as recovery begins

Hurricane Ian made landfall on Florida's southwest coast Wednesday afternoon, bringing with it winds of up to 150 mph and devastating storm surge. Ian, now a tropical storm as it moves across Florida, is one of the strongest storms to have hit the U.S., leaving more than 2 million without power across the state.

Death tolls are beginning to mount in Florida's Gulf Coast, and rescues are underway as the storm continues to pummel the state. President Joe Biden has said it might be the deadliest storm in Florida's history.

USA TODAY reached out to residents in southwest Florida ahead of Ian's arrival, as state officials called for evacuations and residents were scrambling to prepare. As the week continued, we caught up with Floridians as they braced for the worst and hoped for the best.

Florida residents are old hands at hurricanes but were quick to remind us: Every storm is different. What we heard were the voices of people who are both experienced and worried – and are now picking up the pieces from yet another destructive storm.

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'We dodged a bullet'

Thursday, Sept. 29

"We're still standing," 83-year-old Ruth Smith, of St. Petersburg, texted USA TODAY late Wednesday night. "We still have power. Looks like Tampa Bay may have dodged the bullet."

The following afternoon, Smith said the damage was minor, despite the storm drenching the area, with rainfall projections between 12 and 20 inches.

"We have a fence down, bushes down, a few minor things. But we're good," she said.

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In North Tampa, Keith Hawkins breathed a similar sigh of relief. Hawkins lost power twice, noting that it came back on after a few minutes both times, and added that his patio was flooded from the rains. But still, "now it's just some debris cleanup," he said.

"(It was) not so bad, considering what happened south of us," he said. "We dodged a bullet. Again."

'Only time will tell'

Wednesday, Sept. 28

Hurricanes have a habit of changing course, notoriously terrible at telling you with any certainty where they're going to go. At the beginning of the week, Krissy Chenault felt sure she could ride out the worst of it in her Port Charlotte home. By Tuesday, she had begun boarding up her house and making plans to move further inland.

By 9 a.m. Wednesday, hours before Hurricane Ian's projected landfall, she and her family made the decision to move inland.

“We are here with our parents, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews and all of our pets, so it's a nice distraction from the storm,” she told USA TODAY via text message. “The eye will be going right over us in the next couple hours and I know it's going to be rough, but I have faith that we will all get through this.”

“I hope and pray that Punta Gorda doesn't receive such a bad storm surge, but only time will tell,” she said.

'It's been pretty calm so far'

Tampa Bay resident Keith Hawkins prepares his home for Hurricane Ian. Hawkins said he waited six hours for sandbags at a county site on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022.
Tampa Bay resident Keith Hawkins prepares his home for Hurricane Ian. Hawkins said he waited six hours for sandbags at a county site on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022.

In Tampa, first-time homeowner Keith Hawkins, 33, waited six hours for sandbags to protect his first floor.

"It's been pretty calm so far," he told USA TODAY, noting that "the stronger wind gusts are starting to occur more frequently."

In St. Petersburg, Ruth Smith and her husband, Palmer Smith Jr., both in their 80s, are also waiting it out. "We're hunky down, staying put and praying," she texted USA TODAY. "(We) still have power for now. Hope they don't go out."

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Six hours for sandbags in Tampa for the 'what ifs'

Tuesday, Sept. 27

Hawkins waited six hours at a Hillsborough County sandbag site to get supplies to protect his north Tampa home. Hawkins, who grew up in Tampa and lived in Orlando for 10 years, says he has been through his "fair share of hurricanes."

After arriving at the distribution point at 6:30 a.m., Hawkins and other motorists didn't move for more than 30 minutes at times as supplies of sand were trucked in. Hawkins said multiple cars in line with him broke down from overheating, and he was worried about his own vehicle.

“On the way out, they weren’t accepting people into the park anymore, so I was literally one of the last hundred people to get a sandbag, one of the last truckloads. I was really happy I got there early enough because by noon they weren’t letting anybody else into the park.

Johnny Ford, right, and his wife, Jerria Ford, fill sandbags in preparation for the arrival of Hurricane Ian on Sept. 26, 2022,  in Orlando.
Johnny Ford, right, and his wife, Jerria Ford, fill sandbags in preparation for the arrival of Hurricane Ian on Sept. 26, 2022, in Orlando.

“When I was younger it was always my parents dealing with the stress and everything, and I was like, ‘Oh, no school. OK.’ In Orlando, we got hit once but I was renting, at the time I was in an apartment, so I didn’t have to worry about any of the prep, the property damage or anything like that. This is definitely the first time where it’s an extra thing you have to worry about, this is my place that I own and if something happens to it, I’m on the hook where I want to do the best I can to take care of it.

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“It kind of gives you that feeling of, ‘Oh, is it really going to be that bad?’ Because we’ve been through so many storms where there’s a lot of panic and then it ends up turning at the last second or ends up not even being that bad. I’ve definitely had that in the back of my mind, but seeing everybody else kind of panic … it’s the ‘what ifs’ that make you really want to prepare and make sure everything’s good to go because, worst-case scenario, it could totally flood my entire downstairs and do a lot of water damage.

“I got the prep done, so now I just wait.”

'I'm not worried about my house, I'm just worried about my family'

On Monday, Krissy Chenault of Port Charlotte spoke to Fort Myers News-Press reporter Charles Runnells ahead of Hurricane Ian's arrival. Chenault, who manages a bar in Punta Gorda called Hurricane Charley’s, was anxious, more so for her family in Tampa than for herself.

In a conversation with USA TODAY a day later, it was a different story.

“We’re probably going to have historic storm surge in our area,” she said. “We boarded up our home. My husband is going to stay in our home, we live very close to a canal that leads right out to the harbor. I might end up going to my mother-in-law’s tonight which is just a little bit more inland.

“It’s been significant changes since I spoke to him. Very scary."

"If they tell us to evacuate, I'm out," says Krissy Chenault, 47, bar manager at Hurricane Charley's in Punta Gorda, Fla.
"If they tell us to evacuate, I'm out," says Krissy Chenault, 47, bar manager at Hurricane Charley's in Punta Gorda, Fla.

“It’s funny, when Charley was supposed to go to Tampa, our daughter, who was 2 at the time, got very sick,” she told USA TODAY. “They put her in an ambulance and brought her up to Tampa – so we went to Tampa the day before Charley hit and I thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to be anywhere at least this is a safe spot in Tampa to be.’ My husband and I sat in Tampa in a hospital room and watched Charley destroy our hometown.

“So it’s kind of ironic, you know? The tables have turned all of a sudden. Now that daughter that I was in the hospital with 15 years ago is living in Tampa and was supposed to have a major hurricane there tomorrow. And now it’s coming right at us. It’s very ironic.

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“Obviously, the track has shifted significantly. Jim Cantore just showed up in our hometown. That doesn’t make me feel happy! When he shows up, everybody goes, ‘Oh shit.’ Exact words, you know? We live in such a low-lying area, Charlotte Harbor. Our storm surge this morning was 5 to 7 feet, now it’s up to 12 feet. That makes me nervous.

“There’s a lot of new people here this year. When they tell you to leave you gotta leave. (Her voice breaks.) It’s just stuff, it’s just stuff. (Sniffles.) We’ll be OK.

“My husband built our home 14 years ago. At the time when we built it, my husband was a general contractor and was building these hurricane homes where they’re solid concrete walls. So I’m not worried about my house, I’m just worried about my family.”

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'If we have to move ... we'll leave'

In St. Petersburg, Ruth Smith, 83, and her husband, Palmer Smith Jr., 88, were preparing to ride out the storm with their granddaughter. The couple has lived in the area since 1993 after relocating from New York, though Palmer is originally from St. Petersburg.

They’ve had a number of hurricane experiences between them, “but all of them is not the same,” Ruth said. “These hurricanes and storms is always new to you. Because they are unpredictable, you never know what they’re gonna do.

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“We’re paying attention to what the news and the weather forecasters are saying, and what they’re saying is this is the worst storm in a hundred years. And so, uh, of course we're bracing ourselves for the worst, but we're hoping for the best.

Ruth Smith has lived in St. Petersburg, Fla., since 1993.
Ruth Smith has lived in St. Petersburg, Fla., since 1993.

“We are praying that God will lighten the storm, divert it away from the bay area out to sea somewhere. We are apprehensive, somewhat, about the storm. But I have faith that we’re gonna be fine.

"We have lanterns and flashlights, gathered water and some canned goods. We’re doing all the necessities that we can do, putting the shutters down and securing our stuff, but if we have to move or go we’ve got the car all gassed up and everything. We’ll leave, we’ll leave.”

Janessa Hilliard (@janessahilliard) is the digital producer for USA TODAY'S Editorial Board. Carli Pierson, a New York licensed attorney, is an opinion writer with USA TODAY and a member of the USA TODAY Editorial Board. Follow her on Twitter: @CarliPiersonEsq

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hurricane Ian leaves damage, destruction across Florida as it moves