Irma forces Island residents to flee

Cortez Bridge post Irma
Sgt. Russell Schnering, from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, accepts an explanation from a woman who needed to get back on the Island early for family reasons. - Joe Hendricks | Sun

ANNA MARIA ISLAND – Before Hurricane Irma arrived with predictions of Category 4 or 5 force winds, many Anna Maria Island residents evacuated to safer locales.

Some headed to hotels and homes in Bradenton. Others headed to north Florida, Georgia and beyond. On Facebook and in person, several people commented on how difficult the decision to go or stay became as the storm intensified. Many said they felt they had no clear-cut options in terms of hunkering down or leaving town.

Some, including Anna Maria City Commissioner Dale Woodland, decided to ride the storm out in their Island homes. He has a new roof, hurricane windows and protective window panels. He said he felt safe in testing the efficiency of his home improvements.

Woodland spoke by phone during the storm Sunday night. He said his home was holding up well. The whole thing felt like a Disney-like virtual reality version of a hurricane, he added.

Awaiting the storm

On Friday, a mandatory evacuation order was issued. That meant traffic coming onto the Island would cease at 6 p.m. Saturday.

With the evacuation in progress Friday evening, the Island looked more like a ghost town than a tourist town. Several businesses, resorts and homes were boarded up, some with pithy spray-painted messages addressed to Hurricane Irma.

The Historic Anna Maria City Pier was already closed. Three young adults riding scooters down Pine Avenue were the among the only ones out and about. Anna Maria Commissioner Nancy Yetter and her husband, Mike, had just pulled out of town. They were headed for a relative’s house in Wesley Chapel and left sandbags at their door step as a parting gift for Irma.

Before leaving town, Anna Maria Commissioner Brian Seymour enjoyed the raucous hurricane party at Hurricane Hank’s in Holmes Beach. Boarded up windows advertised $1 beers. On this night, Hank’s was the liveliest spot on the Island.

All the businesses on Bridge Street in Bradenton Beach were closed except for the Drift In. BeachHouse chef Donald White and others enjoyed a last night out before Irma’s arrival.

Up the street, the staff at Island Time Bar and Grill was buttoning up the restaurant and closing for the weekend.

At no point during the storm were the bridges raised and there was never a point where someone could not leave the Island.

After the storm

Early Monday morning, Manatee County Sheriff’s Office deputies were stationed at the entrances to the Cortez and Manatee Avenue bridges. Access was restricted to first responders, county and city personnel, members of the media and a select few others who had legitimate reasons to return as Irma’s remnant winds and rains still lingered.

Law enforcement officers patrolled the Island assessing downed power lines and downed trees. Public works personnel from all three Island cities then rolled out the heavy equipment and chain saws and cleared the streets as best they good, sometimes marking downed power lines for all to avoid and others to repair.

At the Bradenton Beach/Holmes Beach border, a Holmes Beach officer greeted the few who passed from city to city.

At 3 p.m. Monday afternoon, access to the Island via the Manatee Avenue Bridge was granted to returning residents and business owners who had hangtags and ID. Holmes Beach Police Chief Bill Tokajer said residents and business owners were given two hours to check out their properties before unrestricted access was granted to others at 5 p.m.

In Bradenton Beach, unrestricted access via to the Cortez Bridge and the Longboat Key Bridge was granted. Bradenton Beach Police Chief Sam Speciale said he opted for unrestricted access immediately so contractors and other service providers could respond to calls from residents and business owners.

Coming home

Like those who headed north the previous week, those returning home faced the fear of not finding gas along the way.

Bradenton Beach residents Steve Schewe and Nancy Kim retreated to Macon, Ga. On Monday night, they called from Ocala and said they had enough gas to get home, but they wanted to know if there was any gas for sale in Bradenton. They were told there was not.

The Drift In was open again Monday night, as was Oma’s restaurant, whose pizzas found their way to the bar courtesy of Swordfish Grill manager Adam Sears.

Tuesday afternoon, Anna Maria resident, Caryn Hodge, her mom and fellow city resident Ruth Uecker, and Hannah the dog traveled home from Panama City Beach. While calling from I-75, Hodge said, “We had a little trouble finding gas, but we found it where we could.”

Irma Ruth Cantori
While riding the storm out in Panama City Beach, Anna Maria resident Ruth Uecker impersonated the Weather Channel’s Jim Cantori. – Caryn Hodge | Submitted

Caryn works for the Chiles Group and she wanted folks to know that the BeachHouse in Bradenton Beach and Mar Vista in Longboat Key were opening Wednesday.

“We’re inviting everyone to come in and have some real food instead of those hurricane snacks,” Caryn said,” noting that the Sandbar remained closed because of power outages.

The Publix in Holmes Beach opened Tuesday morning and other businesses followed in their wake as Island life begins to return to normal.