"Initially, it looked like a wobble," said Pat O'Rourke, a Lee County economic development officer who worked in the emergency operations center. "It eventually turned out to be a turn."
Rather than track toward Tampa, the intensifying storm -- now a Category 4 monster with 145-mph winds -- cranked to the east and blasted toward the low-lying barrier islands off Fort Myers.
Dale Wright and his wife, Roni, console each other in Port Charlotte, Fla., after their townhouse was destroyed.
(Mike Stocker -- South Florida Sun-sentinel Via AP)
"It was like a tight, high-wind doughnut," O'Rourke said.
The unanticipated change of course rousted hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of people in the Fort Myers area, who had thought the storm would swing around them on the way to Tampa.
"There was a last-minute rush of people trying to get to shelters," Winton said.
About 9,000 people eventually took refuge in Lee County shelters. Few of those are believed to have come from Sanibel Island, a wealthy and isolated enclave off Fort Myers, where at least 100 people doggedly refused to heed three days of evacuation warnings. The island took one of the first hits from the storm, and emergency officials were anxiously awaiting daylight to find out whether any of the holdouts were injured.
The storm's remarkable strength held up as it left the Gulf Coast and ripped across the belly of Florida, maintaining Category 2 110-mph winds and moving northeast at a relatively quick 23 mph.
"It's really ripping along," National Hurricane Center spokesman Frank Lepore said.
The quick pace of the storm was encouraging: Slow-moving storms tend to cause more flooding because they have more time to drench an area before moving on. At 11 p.m., the center of the storm was about 10 miles southwest of Daytona Beach and moving north-northeast at about 25 mph, with an increase expected, the Associated Press reported. Maximum sustained winds were near 85 mph, with higher gusts.
In Tampa, where the size of the evacuation orders set local records, Mayor Pam Iorio said she was relieved when the storm tilted inland away from her city. Earlier in the day, sheriff's deputies and police officers had patrolled the city's huge evacuation zones, ordering hotels that defied the evacuation orders to close.
City officials had worried that residents would be lulled into a false sense of security because of several near misses in recent hurricane seasons. With another near miss a certainty, Iorio said she had no regrets about the mass evacuation orders.
"To have done anything else would really have compromised people's safety," she said.
Law enforcement officials spent the days before the storm warning that they would not leave their bunkers in the middle of the storm for "suicide missions" to rescue residents who refused to evacuate. But, despite all the warnings, just 7,300 of Tampa's 55,405 shelter spots were filled.
"It's because we've had so many warnings," Henry Guden said as he waited for his order at Nick's restaurant.
Signs of a kind of attentive nonchalance were everywhere. At the Whiskey River restaurant, the sign out front set the mood: "Hurricane Party: Bring it Charley."