The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Millions were told to leave before Ian. Some calculated it was better to stay.

Crystal Carithers tries to stay dry beneath a shelter at DeSoto Park in Tampa as Hurricane Ian hits Wednesday. (Ted Richardson for The Washington Post)

TAMPA — Some are defiant: Leaving is like giving up.

Some are scared: Leaving is not knowing what will be left when you return.

Some don’t have the means: Leaving is a privilege.

As Hurricane Ian barreled toward the nation’s third-most-populous state, millions were urged to evacuate. Many did, clogging up highways as they fanned out across Florida and beyond. But countless people defied the orders — even in some of the most vulnerable parts of the state, which could get up to 18 feet of storm surge.

It happens every storm, and hurricane holdouts are often judged from afar as wrongheaded or naive, but most of the time the crucial decision is carefully calculated. On one brick-paved street in Tampa Bay — an area highly prone to severe flooding all the reasons that residents stay behind, from money to moxie, were on full display some 24 hours before Ian was set to make landfall.

“You know how many times I heard them say evacuate?” said Alphonso Poole, 47, who has lived in his single-story house on Harper Street for about five years. “And guess what I do: Look at them like they’ve lost their mind.”

Harper runs through the heart of Palmetto Beach, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, east of downtown. It is a majority-Hispanic community of low-slung houses and bungalows clustered along a spit of land that juts into McKay Bay, bordered to the north by a snarl of highways. Despite its name, there’s not much of a beach here — only a sea wall, which lesser storms have mounted easily, driving water into the yards of nearby homes. And unlike in tonier waterfront areas, many residents may not have the resources to rebuild after the sort of flooding that Ian could bring. Households in Palmetto Beach’s Zip code earn about $24,000 a year, less than half of Tampa’s average.

Poole lives less than 700 feet from the water, and as dire forecasts piled up Tuesday evening, he tended to the plants in his front garden, watching his neighbors evacuate or reinforce their homes with wood and sand. Tampa was expected to get 4 to 6 feet of storm surge, less than southwestern Florida but still enough to cause major damage.

Low-lying and flood-prone, Tampa Bay area braces for first major storm in a century

“I ain’t running from no damn storm,” he said. His house, with its chain-link fence and wide porch, had no boards over its windows or doors — if God wants the water and wind to get in, Poole said, plywood and nails won’t help. But still, he was confident he was ready. A chef whose family has farmland near Ocala in central Florida, Poole listed his supplies: freezers stocked with food, plenty of reusable ice packs, tanks of potable water, flashlights, first-aid kits and two radios. Gesturing to the truck in his driveway, he added, “Four-wheel-drive.”

“You know what people don’t understand is wherever you choose to live, that’s how you have to live. Like all these rich folks want their Benzes and Bentleys but want to stay around water,” Poole said, referring to the area’s many gulf and bayside mansions.

Near Tampa, local fisherman hunkered down for Hurricane Ian on Sept. 28 and hoped for the best. (Video: Rich Matthews, Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)

A decade ago, Palmetto Beach was added to the National Register of Historic Places, recognizing its legacy as an early industrial center, home to four cigar factories in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Workers built cottages near the plants, and a school soon followed. The neighborhood’s roads, especially Harper Street, are narrow, the multicolored houses built close together and near the curb. Today, it’s home to many young families, and a few kids played in the street as the storm rolled in.

Half a block from Poole’s house, closer to the water, Rafael Baca was helping his family drill plywood over the windows of their home. Plastic covered another opening, and sandbags were piled on the curb. Baca has lived in the corner house his whole life and it has only ever seen minor water damage, he said. He was hoping that streak continued, but he was nervous.

“With a little bit of rain, all this street gets flooded. It gets bad,” said Baca, 27, pointing to the road that leads to the bay, where water from earlier showers still pooled. “Now with this big storm coming, who knows how deep it might get.”

Photos from Florida as Hurricane Ian nears Category 5

The family felt its only option was to prepare and pray. Baca, who is riding out the storm with his in-laws, wife and her brothers, said they talked about leaving but decided they couldn’t afford it.

“We don’t have the money for it now, to just leave,” he said. Hotel stays, gas and meals can easily top $1,000 and could be much steeper if evacuees can’t return home for several days.

“They ask for so much money for a night,” Baca said of the hotels, which are in high demand during storms. “So we try to prepare here and hope for the best.”

Baca can see the water from his yard. And just out of sight are the remnants of rickety piers where a couple of crab shacks used to stand until two recent tempests destroyed them, a constant reminder of what a powerful hurricane can do.

Near the other end of Harper, Rene Rivera and Judy Herrera sat on their porch. They were looking at Ian’s predicted path again, and they were starting to worry — but not enough to leave. Rivera, 28, was born in Miami and grew up in Tampa. He was practically raised under a hurricane warning.

Rivera weathered Hurricane Irma in the Harper Street house, which he has rented for about seven years, and he said he’s never seen flooding that would put it at risk.

“The way they make it seem on the news — you know 10, 15 feet — I’ve never seen that,” he said. “Even when it was predicted in the past.”

His home has been standing for nearly 100 years — constructed not long after a Category 3 storm hit the city in 1921, the last major hurricane to hit here. If it has lasted this long, Rivera said, he has “faith that everything’s going to be all right.” The neighborhood was in the first zone to come under mandatory evacuation, but the pair chose to stay.

“We’ve done it in the past. We’ve evacuated for some hurricanes,” Rivera said. “But the amount of time it took, the money spent” wasn’t worth it, he said.

The cost is a big factor, he said, but so is a feeling that can’t be quantified: “It’s just hard to leave your home when you’re worrying about coming back to nothing.”

Just as they do before every hurricane, Florida officials in the days leading up to Ian’s predicted landfall pleaded with residents to evacuate, directing them to seek refuge with family, with friends, at hotels or, as a last resort, at shelters. But authorities aren’t forcing people to leave. So in the days ahead, the focus will move from preparation to rescue.

“I think most people heeded the warnings of doing the evacuations in those very sensitive locations, but not everyone may have done that,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said at a briefing early Wednesday. “And so we understand that a storm of this magnitude, there is going to be a need to begin those rescue efforts.”

Local leaders are particularly worried about those choosing to stay in mobile-home parks, such as Lake Haven in Dunedin, Fla., a city north of Clearwater positioned along the Gulf Coast. Mobile homes often aren’t sturdily anchored into the ground and can be uprooted in a flood. Roofs and walls can cave in. But at Lake Haven, a few residents were unyielding.

Ron Thomas, for one, isn’t going anywhere.

“I’m not afraid of hurricanes,” said Thomas, 83. “I’m not afraid of anything.”

He has resided in his home there for some 15 years and tallied more than a dozen hurricanes survived throughout this life. This one, he said, won’t be any different. He’ll stay with his dog, Teddy. On Tuesday, after spending much of the day working in the yard outside his house, Thomas reclined in a chair on the driveway, listening to the temporary quiet. It wasn’t just the absence of evacuated neighbors, he said. Usually, his wife, Helen Annette, would be inside singing, cooking or playing computer games. But she died about two weeks ago, he said.

“Without her, I don’t care if a hurricane takes me or not,” Thomas said.

A fellow Lake Haven resident, Tom Harris, 80, was still trying to decide Tuesday afternoon whether he would evacuate. But he was running out of time.

“If it lands south of Tampa, I’m going to stay,” Harris said. “Otherwise I’ll go. I don’t want to be in a trailer with 180-mile-per-hour wind.”

He has lived in the area for 55 years, the last five in Lake Haven. Looking around, Harris noted that many neighbors had already left. He was prepared, he said, with plenty of water, peanut butter and jelly, and he was watching the weather reports closely.

“I think they’re exaggerating, but maybe not,” he said. “If I hear it’s coming through, I’m leaving.”

Back in Tampa, other hurricane-resisters flocked to county sites to shovel sand into any receptacle they could find — trash can liners, buckets, Ikea bags. At a park in West Tampa, Aurelio Ramos, 81, piled bags into the bed of his pickup. Ramos’s home in Town ’n’ Country, a suburb northwest of the city center, backs up to a creek, and he was told to evacuate. But for him, he said, that would mean staying in a shelter. And he’d rather be at home.

“Maybe it’ll come straight through here, maybe not, but we gotta do this,” he said, gesturing at his truckload of sand.

Aigul Ahmed, 45, filled 10 bags and had already boarded up her home, which also sits in an evacuation zone. She was more nervous about the flooding than the wind, she said, and is comforted by Tampa’s long history of avoiding direct hits.

Others have attributed it to more than luck, citing an old tale about Indigenous people blessing the land to protect it from storms. And indeed, as the storm moved closer to land, its predicted track moved farther south, possibly reducing the risk of catastrophic flooding in Tampa. Yet officials have stressed that the deluge could still inundate low-lying communities — places like Palmetto Beach.

As night fell here on Tuesday, the sun shone brilliantly through the clouds, casting an orange and yellow glow over the neighborhood. As it set, the rain began.

Leone reported from Dunedin. Ellen Francis contributed to this report.