At what could be ground zero for looming Hurricane Ian, the main avenue was desolate Tuesday afternoon. Some small boutiques had plywood boards over the windows. Only a few shop owners in this small Gulf Coast town were making final preparations in gray, drizzly weather.
Daniel E. McDonald, 65, fastened the last few metal shutters that mostly cover his storefront window at Sea Pleasures and Treasures, a souvenir center on Venice Avenue. His purple shirt drenched, he didn’t have enough to fully seal the window, so he tried his best to guess which arrangement of panels might minimize damage.
He knows there is only so much you can do when a major hurricane is churning toward a coastline vulnerable to storm surge and flooding. This community, like so many in Florida, is on a first name basis with previous storms that either swept over their homes or turned away at the last minute. Late Tuesday, in fact, the National Hurricane Center shifted the center of the cone of concern for Ian slightly south again — but Venice remained in a high-risk zone.
Venice escaped serious damage from Charley, a 2004 hurricane that sliced across the state, devastating nearby Punta Gorda and Fort Myers just to the south. At one point, Venice was directly in Charley’s path before a last-minute turn inland and most of Venice never even lost power. Locals here are hoping for similar fortune or perhaps a late saving pivot — maybe one that would keep Ian’s eyewall, expected to be near 130 mph, offshore.
“Charley was small and horrible,” McDonald said. Ian is a much larger storm, pushing storm surge that could reach 12 feet high in spots
Venice is a charming small beachside town, home to about 25,000 people, a popular fishing spot and is probably most famous for shark tooth fossils found along Caspersen Beach. The town bills itself as the “Shark Tooth Capital of the World.”
A block closer to the beach, Jackie Bybee, 33, helped her coworkers mount a sheet of plywood over a window at the Soda Fountain of Venice. The restaurant manager who lives in North Port evacuated when a powerful Hurricane Irma threatened most of Florida’s peninsula in 2017. This time, she said she wasn’t up for a traffic jam from here to Georgia.
A transplant from Wyoming, Bybee said she’s going to ride out the storm with her partner and their 1-year-old and 4-year-old in their bedroom. When it comes to weather, she said she’d take a tropical cyclone over other natural threats out west any day.
“I think if you had to pick a natural disaster, it might as well be one you can see coming,” she said. “At least it’s not a tornado or an earthquake that comes out of nowhere.”
A few feet away, 31-year-old Chris Iovanna held up the wood as a colleague drilled. He lives on the island in a second-story apartment, and he’s decided to stay.
“I have everything I need,” he said. The stash: a cooler full of cold beers and a bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey.
Across the street, Janet Molen hopped out of her car to run to the Bank of America ATM. She was taking care of the last things on her checklist, pulling some cash. A Canada native who came from California to Venice in 2008, Molen said she had her shutters up, “tons of food,” many bags of ice and prescription drugs.
Still, she said she was a bit nervous. It’s her first hurricane. One of her neighbors was more so.
“He said he was a coward and he was headed north,” she said.
Others nearby weren’t taking their chances.
Jeff Carey, a 59-year-old mold remediation specialist, was sweating as he packed his car Tuesday outside his Venice home in the Ridgewood Mobile Home Park, about two miles from the shoreline and less than a mile from the Venetian Waterway. Many only had the pull-down shutters covering windows.
Carey’s lived in this Gulf shore community for more than a decade, and he’s seen the aftermath of Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina, and he’s not taking any chances with Hurricane Ian. He put his hand on his forehead as he looked around his screened-in patio, with family photos on the wall and a washer and dryer behind him. Christmas decorations lay in a pile on a glass table next to a candle and a bicycle helmet. He knew that the water could rise high in his home.
“Just get out. Don’t stick around,” he said about an hour before evacuating to a friend’s sturdier building several miles inland. “If you’ve got any place to go, go. This is not a thing to mess around with. Very serious, and it’s like I said, it’s one of the biggest ones I’ve ever seen.”
Others in Venice are staying put for now. On the beach, where the water was eerily flat, 36-year-old Alex Barker explained his lifelong interest in meteorology. The Indiana native liked to chase tornadoes in the Midwest. Now he’s hoping to get his first look at a hurricane.
“It’s not really doing much right now,” he said, as his partner and three kids collected shells in gentle surf. “Is that bad to say?”
He and his family live in a home just off the island, but they just closed on a home farther inland. If the water rises, they plan to take some mattresses to the new house and ride out the storm there.