With damages expected to exceed $60 billion, Hurricane Ian will go down as “the big one” for many Floridians, but for North Central Florida, the storm’s final track left locals relieved.
As Ian gained strength in the Caribbean, forecasts pegged landfall along the Nature Coast, including potentially Levy County—which could have brought a storm surge as far inland as US 19. Instead, Ian curved hard and hit hard near Ft. Myers, leaving a wake of devastation and dozens dead.
John MacDonald, director of Levy County Emergency Management, said Ian scared him a bit compared to past storms with predicted 15- or 16-foot storm surges and winds of more than 115 miles per hour.
“We were under the bullseye, then all of a sudden, day three, you go in there and you start seeing it take that track,” MacDonald said in a phone interview.
He said the county saw a few downed trees caused due to wind gusts and the already saturated ground, but the Category 4 storm ultimately caused less damage than Tropical Storm Elsa last year.
Levy County ordered evacuations for coastal and low-lying areas along with mobile homes. Bronson Middle High School opened as a general population shelter with the elementary school serving as a special needs shelter.
MacDonald said the shelter had around 40 people and noted that the uncertain track and evacuation orders could hurt down the line.
“It causes a lot of complacency when you start having storms pop up in the future,” MacDonald said. “It causes that uncertainty, so it does put a level of problems for us when the next one comes.”
Gainesville, Newberry and High Springs sent emergency personnel southward to help with relief efforts before the tropical storm watch had lifted in the area. Forecasters had projected 6-8 inches of rainfall in Alachua County, but less than 2 inches materialized.
Clay Electric reported 30,000 customer outages at the height of the storm, and 80 percent were restored by Friday morning. The Central Florida Electric Cooperative reported 1,510 customer outages on Thursday morning and by 1 p.m. only 165 customers still lacked power. Gainesville Regional Utilities reported restoring 17,605 outages along with help from out-of-state crews.
High Springs held normal office hours on Friday, and Gainesville officially opened Depot Park at noon Friday. The remainder of the Gainesville parks officially reopened Monday. Even by Thursday evening, residents played soccer at Veterans Memorial Park as dogs walked their owners on the paths.
MacDonald said Levy County might not hit the $175,000 threshold for certain federal assistance but encouraged all residents to report storm damage at levydisaster.com.
“If we don’t trip it, then no harm no foul,” MacDonald said. “If we do trip it, then that opens the gates to where we can get some kind of federal assistance.”
Meanwhile, Florida continued shuffling resources to the southwest and central counties. On Friday, 20 trucks with 1.2 million gallons of water headed from Lakeland to Fort Myers for hospitals without potable water, according to a press release from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office.
The Florida Disaster Fund surpassed $10 million in donations within 24 hours of being activated. On Friday, the Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM) began deploying more than 4,000 gallons of diesel to power water plants, drone teams to access flooding, more than 400 bottles of oxygen, 255 ambulances, 200 trucks of supplies and two full service mechanical shops.