PINELLAS COUNTY – One week ago, residents were glued to their newscasts and the Internet watching in growing fear as the projected path of powerful Hurricane Ivan was drawn right through the Tampa Bay area.
Other models showed Ivan cutting a path up the middle of the state, and others showed it to the left of the Pinellas peninsula.
A direct hit – or close to it – seemed imminent.
As the projected path moved farther to the west with each weather update, weary residents refused to let down their guard.
On Friday, by 5:45 a.m., a line of cars was backed up to Park Boulevard at the Home Depot in Seminole. Residents sat in lawn chairs sprawled throughout home improvement stores, in line, waiting for hours for plywood to use to board up their homes.
Drivers rode around searching for a gas station that actually had gasoline, and when they found one, they waited in line there, too.
People were just a little cranky.
Many of the supermarkets had not had a chance to restock the shelves from Tropical Storm Frances. Shoppers scooped up what they could.
Small talk swirled around one subject, with terms that included words like troughs, low pressure systems and cones of uncertainty.
Schools announced closings.
Weekend activities were canceled.
The Gulf Beaches Kiwanis was scheduled to host its first fall festival in Madeira Beach – the second time. It had been rescheduled once already due to the bad weather. With nervous out-of-area crafters, sheriff’s deputies that would probably be a no-show, a balloon ride that would be available only half of the time, the organizers decided to cancel the whole weekend. It will be rescheduled in November – after the hurricane season is over.
“There was simply not anything we could do,” said Eddie Lee of the Kiwanis. “We weren’t going to be able to give them what was advertised.”
Besides, everyone was busy.
By Monday morning, most residents returned to their routines, relieved. They left boards on windows and kept a wary eye on the hurricane as it hit Cuba and set its sights on the Panhandle, sending bands of wind and rain to Pinellas County.
The Suncoast has not stopped reeling from the effects of Charlie and Frances, the other two hurricanes that spared the area this month but left their mark, not only in property damage, but in the effect to the local economy.
The economic impact in Seminole has been about 2 percent, according to estimates from Jimmy Johnson, executive director of the Greater Seminole Area Chamber of Commerce. Retail business has been hurt the worst, he said, with sales down, as well as some of the doctors offices and professional centers that sustained damage and had to go without power.
A report compiled by Gretchen Cain, business assistant specialist for the chamber, puts lost revenue estimates at 2 percent. While those businesses that stock “evcuation items” reported an increase of 75 percent in sales, other businesses suffered an estimated 20 percent loss in revenue resulting from evacuations, power outages, shipping and mail delays and a general decrease in consumer spending.
The impact along the beaches also has been significant, according to Missy Pike, the CEO and president of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber, especially considering that just prior to the Labor Day weekend, it was reported that hotels and motels were full. As cancellations were phoned in with Frances approaching, the chamber worked with the Clearwater/St. Petersburg Area Convention and Visitors Bureau to get the word out that there was, indeed, hotel vacancies.
Those evacuating from the East Coast were able to find accommodations at the member hotels and motels because of those efforts, said Pike.
Having just declared itself recovered from 9/11, Pike said three hurricanes in a row has put a dent in Florida’s reputation. However, she said, the chamber will be working on educating the traveling public that a hurricane’s affect is usually short-term.
“The areas that aren’t hit are back to business as usual,” she said. “We need to get the word out about that.”
Johnson, too, spoke of the area’s recovery stage. Both voiced optimism that the area would be back to normal soon.
“We are going to recover,” said Johnson. “We are indeed grateful we didn’t take a direct hit.”