Joni Stokes, 60, who has lived on Sanibel Island, Fla., for 40 years, admitted she was edgy as she prepared for Hurricane Irma’s landfall. Her husband Marty, a native Floridian from a family that’s been on nearby Captiva Island for generations, looked a little wary, too, as he dodged the stacks of water bottles in the kitchen.
“It’s just a fear of the unknown,” said Stokes, who like her husband, is a Realtor. Both spent the last week checking on elderly neighbors, then securing the homes of clients who spend the winter on Sanibel and Captiva, but rarely venture there during the hot and muggy hurricane season.
The couple had planned to ride out the storm in their home on Sanibel, which they built after 2004’s Hurricane Charley scored a direct hit on the tourist-friendly island. The windows are rated to withstand projectiles at 150 miles per hour. The house is raised more than 14 feet and sits on some of the highest land on the island, the site of an old tomato farm and key lime orchard.
Then the threats of 100-mph-plus winds and 10- to 12-foot storm surge pushed the Stokes over the edge. The latest direction of Irma and its predictions caused everyone in their neighborhood who had planned to stay to evacuate Saturday.
“We decided it was time to get out,” Marty Stokes said, after the couple moved for a friend’s home in Fort Myers.
While the exodus of many Floridians this week tied up traffic on the interstate highways, others in the barrier islands that line the southwest coast of Florida plan to ride out the storm only a modest line-cast away from the surf.
Although Gov. Rick Scott had ordered the evacuation of all the barrier islands from Marco Island to Pine Island by Friday, some residents who said they were taking the warnings seriously were still fishing, sunning, tying up boats and boarding up houses.
Tyler Parkinson was pounding nails into plywood over the second-floor windows of an octagonal house in Fort Myers Beach. He and a friend put up plywood on four houses, and secured hurricane shutters on many more. Parkinson planned to spend the storm in a condo next door. “I got nowhere else to go,” he said.
Lou Callahan of Bonita Springs dropped a fishing line in the waters of Big Carlos Pass, seeking mangrove grouper and shark. The sport relaxes him, he said, and got him away from the “nerve-racking” weather news.
Between the bridges from the mainland to Sanibel, several groups were sunning on the sands of the Causeway Islands State Park.
“We’re just trying to enjoy it while we can, and de-stress before the storm,” said Erin Williams Brandao, an assistant principal at a Fort Myers school. The storm shutters are on, food and water is stocked and they decided to stay in their ground-floor condo, because their closest relatives are way north in Ohio, she said, as her husband Rick and her two-year-old stepdaughter Meliah Taylor played along the water’s edge.
They weren’t the only ones. Stephanie and Craig Faria from Boston parked their white Mustang convertible in the sand in the same park and soaked in the rays. They are staying at their family’s home in Fort Myers for the week, and have a handful of offers to stay with neighbors during the storm.
Over the bridges and into Sanibel, with 7,000 year-round residents, the main road was noticeably quiet Friday. The restaurants and shops which cater to the 20,000 winter residents and visitors were closed. The Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge was closed. Even the churches had closed.
The Stokes said they noticed signs that this could be a bad hurricane.
Their son, Luke, said he remembers his grandparents and great-grandparents telling him, “When the ibis leaves, it’s time for you to leave.” The long-legged wading birds lately have made themselves scarce. Another local legend says when seagrapes are plentiful, a bad storm is coming, and just outside the Stokes’ front door, seagrape trees dripped with green and red fruit.
Marty Stokes’ grandparents were lighthouse keepers on Sanibel, and during a major blow in 1945, the storm got so bad that they retreated from their cabin to the lighthouse stairs, joined by Cuban fishermen who washed ashore. They sang religious hymns all night long as the storm raged outside, but they survived.
Stokes took a brief break Thursday afternoon from storm preparations to take a swim in the Gulf on what has been a beautiful day in southwest Florida.
“We were the only boat on the water. So many birds and wildlife — the dolphins were jumping and it was just a nice moment for us,” she said.