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The Tampa Bay region feels lucky that it didn't suffer severe damage from Ian


In the Tampa Bay region, people are feeling pretty lucky. Hurricane Ian spared them from the more severe damage it inflicted on other parts of Florida. Still, over 100,000 people in the county are without power. And residents told Stephanie Colombini with member station WUSF, it could have been much worse.

STEPHANIE COLOMBINI, BYLINE: Driving on to Anna Maria Island, there were downed palm trees and broken store signs. Some traffic lights were out, and the occasional street was covered in floodwater. But the clearest remnant of Ian's presence was on the beach.

The wind is no joke on the beach right now, howling. You don't normally see waves like this on the Gulf of Mexico - very calm typically, flat, and there's plenty of waves bustling into the shore - walking past condos and waterfront homes with their windows boarded up or shutters pulled down.

This was one of many coastal communities in the region where officials ordered residents to evacuate as Hurricane Ian was forecast to hit the Tampa area. But not everyone left, hoping it would steer clear, as it did. Twenty-eight-year-old Zack Ciejak chose to stay behind.

ZACK CIEJAK: I hunkered the fort down and stayed as safe as possible and made sure my house didn't flood and just rode it out.

COLOMBINI: He wasn't entirely unscathed by Ian, but was in bright spirits.

CIEJAK: Oh, yeah, I don't have power. I don't have water. But it's all right. I'm just glad everybody is safe and the island's still attached.

COLOMBINI: The scene here was a stark contrast to the devastation farther south, where catastrophic storm surge flooded places like Fort Myers and Sanibel Island, the latter of which became cut off from the mainland when Ian wiped away parts of its causeway. The plight of their fellow Floridians wasn't lost on Ciejak or others walking the beach, like 21-year-old Emma Mersch.

EMMA MERSCH: Fort Myers - oh, my goodness. I can't believe. I feel so bad. Oh, my gosh. Like, that's crazy.

COLOMBINI: She lives inland, but came to the beach with her boyfriend, Austin Dodson, to watch the waves. He was skimboarding along the shore and says he was grateful to have that chance.

AUSTIN DODSON: I thought this was going to float - thought this island was going to float.

COLOMBINI: They remembered Hurricane Irma five years ago, which Mersch says damaged her mother's home on the island and left her without power for weeks. Though they fared better this time, Mersch says seeing what happened in other parts of the state reminds them to always take hurricanes seriously.

MERSCH: Make sure that you follow everything that everyone's telling you. It's just so unpredictable, so just always get out of there, I guess.

COLOMBINI: Mersch says they were relieved to hear from family members in southwest Florida that they're safe as rescue efforts continue. Others on the beach say they were anxiously trying to reach loved ones. Tampa Bay officials have pledged to support their neighbors to the south to help rebuild.

For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Colombini on Anna Maria Island. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.