When Hurricane Irma veered toward Naples, Fla., it was too late to evacuate
Underneath the historic pier near downtown Naples on Saturday, Katie Alvarez hugged her son Jordan and sobbed.
Hurricanes are part of an Alvarez family tradition. Katie Alvarez has photos of her kids on the pier before and after every major storm that has affected the coastal southwest Florida city. Sometimes they take photos during the storm. She was there Saturday to snap the before shots of her now-grown children.
Alvarez was in tears because she was certain there will be no photographs after the storm this year.
“It’s going to be gone,” said the Naples native, who joined her family at the beach in a homemade “Irma You Suck” shirt and visor with the Confederate flag emblazoned on it. She knows hurricanes, working at a company that installs storm shutters.
“I wanted to see it one last time,” Alvarez said of the pier, first built in 1888 but destroyed more than once by hurricanes over the years.
Florida has been bracing for Hurricane Irma for days, but the westward shift of the storm caught this manicured Gulfside town, known for its yachts, quaint canals and beachfront mansions, off guard. By Saturday, it was directly in Irma’s path. Naples wasn’t ready for this.
Not long after the nearby city of Estero opened a 7,500-bed shelter at the Germain Arena, its immense parking lot was teeming with evacuees. The line snaked up and down, and it appeared there might be more people than beds. Other shelters were filling up fast, leaving city officials scrambling to ready new locations.
“They didn’t tell us we were being evacuated until the very last minute,” said Barbara Sobol, a 70-year-old Cape Coral resident who looked deflated as she took a timeout from the hours-long line, while her husband kept their place. Just minutes earlier, an elderly woman had fainted and was taken away by ambulance, suffering from what seemed a bout of heat exhaustion.
The line was filled with yapping pooches, which were permitted to accompany their owners inside. But Sobol said the commotion of the shelter would probably upset her cat more than the commotion of riding out Irma in an empty house. “I left food for her at high elevations in different places. She’ll find it,” Sobol said. “This shelter is a strange, noisy place. She’d be scared here.”
In the hours before the storm’s expected arrival in South Florida, million-dollar boats floated helplessly at the Naples Boat Club. Susan Boucek, the owner of a gorgeous vintage sailboat, said she would be staying put in one of the club’s apartments feet away from the water — a risky move. But Boucek refuses to abandon ship. She and other boat owners were frantically securing their vessels to 12-foot-high pillars in the water, placing the knots at the very top in anticipation of the floating dock rising that high as storm-surge waters flood in.
“We were all posed with the same problem,” said Bill Charbonneau, as he tied down the 86- and 75-foot Sunseeker yachts he charters for cruises. “It was hard to escape in any direction.” The twists and turns of the storm were too hard to predict. He is hoping the yachts will live up to their names: Perseverance I and II.
Charbonneau’s phone has been ringing off the hook as the storm bears down. Potential clients want to lock him in to take them to see their battered mansions in the Florida Keys after the storm passes — if Charbonneau’s yachts make it themselves.
“Obviously, that is not where you want to get your business,” he said.
The area was abuzz with talk of boat owners in Miami and nearby cities who had schlepped their vessels to the Gulf Coast thinking they would escape Irma’s worst. Instead, their boats appeared to be suddenly in the storm’s direct path.
For many locals in and around Naples who wanted to get out, there simply wasn’t time. By Saturday morning, one forecaster was warning that the next day would bring tornado-force winds. Even the weatherman said he’s leaving his condominium because he feared the roof would blow off.
Elderly residents who previously managed to escape other storms found themselves unable to leave town; it was too late. There is only one interstate leading out of harm’s way from this corner of the state, and it was jammed with other evacuees. Local officials advised residents to seek refuge instead at local shelters, which were fast filling up. Those who heard from friends who had managed to pack up their cars and hit the highway repeated stories of 13-hour drives just to get to the state line.
Video: Times coverage of Hurricane Irma
“This is the first time we have come to a shelter,” said Ann Johnson, 82, as she sat with her husband and another couple under the fluorescent lights of the Palmetto Ridge High School cafeteria. “Usually we just pack up and go. We looked at the timing of this and realized there was nowhere to go. This is as safe a place as any.”
Although not very comfortable. Johnson slept across three stiff plastic chairs the night before. There weren’t enough cots for everyone. Only the infirm were given a bed.
Pat and Dennis Boyle, another elderly couple, had been tracking the storm closely and thought they would be safe in their inland home. They, too, ended up at the shelter.
“We couldn’t get anywhere else,” said Dennis Boyle, 87. “The problem with trying to leave is you can get on the interstate and run out of gas. All the gas stations are closed. What do you do then?”
Fort Myers, Fla., resident Andrea Tuttle, 66, decides to stay home as Hurricane Irma approaches.
Over by the pier, locals anxiously plotted their plans for making it through the torrent. “My house is awful old,” said Peter Hinrichs, 80, as he chatted with a neighbor and a city maintenance worker.
“I’m afraid it is going to blow away. Everything I own is in it,” said Hinrichs, who was heading to his daughter’s more-secure home to ride out Irma’s wrath.
Hinrichs did not even consider leaving town. “I’m 80 years old,” he said. “I start to fall asleep on long drives. It’s more dangerous on the road than it is for me here.”
His friend Gary Sharp, who also is staying, chimed in: “They say the roads are an even bigger mess than this thing is going to be,” he said.
They were standing in a parking lot that was sure to be underwater by Sunday. In fact, it was just drying out from flooding related to residual surges caused by Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas two weeks ago. What would be left of the rest of the town was a big question mark.
“We don’t know,” Sharp said. “Nobody knows.”
Trailer homes at the Sea Breeze trailer park in the Florida Keys town of Islamorada were destroyed by Irma.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Tom Ross inspects the damage to his three-story condominium building in Islamorada.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
The remains of a boat in Islamorada.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Brooke Gilbert, 15, and her father, Mike Gilbert, look at the ruins of her grandparents’ condominium building in Islamorada.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Laura Gilbert retrieves the mailbox from her father’s condominium in Islamorada after it was swept away during the storm.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Sand and debris block access to trailer homes in Islamorada.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Greg Garner embraces neighbor Linda Nettles in front of his longtime family home that lost part of its roof after Tropical Storm Irma hit Sullivan’s Island, S.C.(Mic Smith / Associated Press)
Israel Alvarado, 25, tries to open a gate blocked by fallen tree branches to retrieve a generator in Bonita Springs.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Rescue workers help a couple evacuate their flooded home in Jacksonville.(John Raoux / Associated Press)
Charlotte Glaze, left gives Donna Lamb a hug as she floats out some of her belongings in floodwaters in Jacksonville,.(Dede Smith / Associated Press)
Ron Colby, 70, leaves his flooded Bonita Springs home after staying during Hurricane Irma. He said he was OK with the wind but that at 3:30 in the morning the water started to rise.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A dresser floats by Gilberto Diaz in his Bonita Springs neighborhood. Originally from Guatemala, Diaz has lived in Florida since 1994.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
In Bonita Springs, floodwaters reached waist deep in some areas on Monday, flooding homes and cars.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A block from the ocean in Naples, the water was still a foot deep from storm surge. Homeowner Terry Clontz put up a “no wake” sign because people were driving by too fast, pushing water farther onto his property.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Floodwaters surround a marina in Key Largo on Monday following Hurricane Irma.(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
Mobile homes in Key Largo, Fla., lie in ruins on Monday after Hurricane Irma.(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
Floodwaters surround Gilbert’s Resort in Key Largo on Monday.(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
Kelly McClenthen returns to see the flood damage to her home with her boyfriend, Daniel Harrison, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Bonita Springs, Fla.(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
Terry Thompson is relieved. He rode out the storm in his home in Riverwood Estates in Naples. Although the Naples area of Florida was hit hard by Hurricane Irma, damage wasn’t nearly as bad as anticipated.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A woman leaves her flooded home the morning after Hurricane Irma swept through the area in Fort Myers, Florida.(Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
People tend to a car that flipped over on Cape Coral Parkway during Hurricane Irma, in Cape Coral.(Gerald Herbert / AP)
A man clears the drain next to his house in Estero, Fla., during the lull in winds as the eye of the hurricane passes over.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Evacuees use flashlights so others can maneuver around the stairway at Hampton Inn and Suites in Estero, Fla.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Guests gather in the lobby of Hampton Inn and Suites in Estero, Fla., to watch the hurricane gusts.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Darla Talia Ferro, 40, and her two parakeets ride out Hurricane Irma in the lobby of Hampton Inn and Suites in Estero, Fla.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
John Krowzow, 74, wades in floodwater to check out his homes in Corkscrew Woodlands, a park with 640 senior mobile home units in Estero, Fla.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Peter Moodley wades through floodwater in downtown Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Two men walk through a downed tree as Hurricane Irma’s full force strikes Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A woman films the damage from a house whose roof was blown off near downtown Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A vehicle drives through debris caused by Hurricane Irma, in Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Weather reporters in downtown Miami jump and cling on to illustrate the force of the winds caused by Hurricane Irma.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Weather reporters do a stand-up as the force of the winds caused by Hurricane Irma hit Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A cargo truck is tipped over by the wind caused by Hurricane Irma in Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Storm surge floods the Brickell neighborhood of Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Streets are empty in downtown Miami as the wind picks up speed during Hurricane Irma’s approach.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Maria Koenig, 63, of Estero, Fla., and her dog, Baeley, sit by the window at their Estero hotel so Maria can keep an eye on the storm on Sunday.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Glen Sinatra, 69, from Naples, says he feels lucky to be at a hotel in Estero instead of a shelter. He’s nervous about the storm and says he’s trying not to worry his children about the conditions.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Jimmy Alfano, of Ft. Myers, holds onto Alec Hoskins who is autistic, while watching the storm gusts through the window of their Estero hotel with Frank Pairs.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A car sits abandoned in storm surge along North Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard as Hurricane Irma hits the southern part of the state.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
The metal canopy at a gasoline station is overturned by high winds brought on by Hurricane Irma.(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
Youssef Ezzou, left, and Fadel Beznbachir roam outside to check out the conditions in Miami as Hurricane Irma nears the mainland.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A construction crane whose arm broke off towers over a building as high wind blows through downtown Miami on Sunday.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A man and woman run to safety in Miami as winds from Hurricane Irma bear down on Sunday.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Storefronts in Miami are damaged as Hurricane Irma’s winds hit Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Dustin Terkoski, Palm Bay Police officer surveys the scene after a possible tornado touched down at Palm Pam Bay Estates.(Red Huber / Orlando Sentinel)
A man braces against the wind by the Miami River on Sunday as water levels surge.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A man stands by the Miami River as the water level surges on Sunday.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
The waves on the Miami River begin to surge Sunday as winds pick up speed upon Hurricane Irma’s approach.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Brian Williams, of Maryland, fights the winds in downtown Fort Myers.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Trees fall as winds pick up speed early Sunday as Hurricane Irma approaches Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A TV reporter braces against the wind as Hurricane Irma approaches Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
The outer bands of Hurricane Irma start to reach Florida on Saturday, with clouds over the Miami skyline.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images )
People wade through a flooded street in Havana after Hurricane Irma battered central Cuba.(YAMIL LAGE / AFP/Getty Images)
Thousands wait Saturday to enter a storm shelter set up at Germain Arena in Estero, Fla., south of Fort Myers.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Jean Turner, 79, waits to get into a shelter with a few of her belongings as rain begins to fall Saturday in Estero, Fla.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Sherri Bourdo, 32, and Anthony Guidry, 40, look out over the water in Naples, Fla, in advance of the arrival of Hurricane Irma.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Lisette Toroella and Tatiana Morera play on the beach as storm clouds approach in Miami Beach.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Adam Todd, does a handstand while skateboarding down a virtually empty Ocean Drive in Miami Beach.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Abby Jenkins walks against the wind with her luggage and umbrella to get to safety, in Miami Beach.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
James Sampero surfs in the churning ocean as Hurricane Irma approaches.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Cubans wade through the rubble from a collapsed building in Havana on Saturday.(Yamil Lage / AFP/Getty Images)
A woman and child use a blanket as protection from wind and rain as they walk in Caibarien, Cuba. Hurricane Irma battered Cuba on Saturday with deafening winds and unremitting rain, pushing seawater inland and flooding homes before turning toward Florida.(Desmond Boylan / Associated Press)
Annette Davis plays with her son Darius, 3, while staying at a shelter in Miami on Saturday after evacuating from their home in Florida City ahead of Hurricane Irma.(David Goldman / Associated Press)
Residents walk through rain brought on by Hurricane Irma in Caibarien, Cuba. The powerful storm battered Cuba on Saturday and continued its march toward Florida.(Desmond Boylan / Associated Press)
Palmetto Ridge High School is a shelter for people with special needs near Naples, Fla. Many seniors plan to ride out the storm there.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Francesca DeLuca, age 20, will be waiting for 10 hours for her flight back to Milan, Italy. She had been visiting a friend in Miami by herself, but the area where she was staying is under mandatory evacuation. At Miami International Airport, the last flights will be this afternoon with the airport closing tonight at 6pm. Most travelers are taking flights to anywhere they can find.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Boats that can’t be evacuated are tied off in canals to protect them from Hurricane Irma on in Key Largo, Florida. The entire Florida Keys are under a mandatory evacuation notice as Hurricane Irma approaches the low-lying chain of islands south of Miami.(Marc Serota / Getty Images)
Hundreds wait in line on Friday at Home Depot in Miami to get supplies line sheets of plywood, and anything else they can find, to board up their homes. Police were on the scene to keep things orderly.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
In the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami, Fritz Drinks, whose family is from Haiti, helps load sandbags at Little Haiti Hardware and Lumber. Many people in the area are refusing to evacuate in advance of Hurricane Irma.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
In downtowm Miaimi, people wait to get on a bus headed to Orlando under a mandatory evacution plan. Preparations are underway for Hurricane Irma as the storm makes its way toward Florida.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Stores are boarded up in Miami Beach in advance of Hurricane Irma.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Preparations for Hurricane Irma are underway in Miami Beach as the storm makes its way toward Florida.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Genaro Dacosta, 65, of Miami Beach loads sandbags in advance of Hurricane Irma. He says he can’t evacuate the area because he has a monkey.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
An aerial photograph taken and released by the Dutch Department of Defense on Wednesday shows damage from Hurricane Irma in Philipsburg, St. Maarten.(Gerben van Es / AFP/Getty Images)
Juan Negron, third from left, prepares to start up a power generator in front of what’s left of his damaged property in Culebra, Puerto Rico, after the passage of Hurricane Irma.(Carlos Giusti / Associated Press)
Residents come out to survey the damage caused by Hurricane Irma in Nagua, Dominican Republic.(Tatiana Fernandez / Associated Press)
People on Thursday look over damage from Hurricane Irma on a sand-covered street of Marigot, near the Bay of Nettle, on the island of St. Maarten.(Lionel Chamoiseau / AFP/Getty Images)
Inmate trustees from the Brevard County Jail fill sandbags for Meritt Island, Fla., residents in advance of Hurricane Irma.(Brian Blanco / Getty Images)
Motorists leave Key Largo, Fla., ahead of Hurricane Irma.(Alan Diaz / Associated Press)
“Weather is unpredictable, like everything else in life,” said Courtney Vernon, 31, who stayed to look after her family’s beach home, smack in the path of a surge zone where water levels are anticipated to rise 10 feet. She planned to decamp for a shelter once the storm arrived. Vernon was holding out hope for another shift in the storm that would move it away from the area. That was looking unlikely.
Whether Sherri Bourdo and Anthony Guidry would flee his beachfront home remained a matter of debate between the couple. He wanted to stick it out, against the advice of every government official and repeated warnings that rescue crews would not be able to reach them there. She was thinking that may not be too smart.
“We might have to make a last-minute decision to stay at a friend’s house,” Guidry allowed.
Bourdo moved to Naples from the Midwest earlier in the year. On Saturday morning, she was still trying to process what was about to hit.
“It’s been kind of surreal,” she said. “This is all new to me.” Bourdo stood on the pier catching one last glimpse of the vista before the storm. “Gas lines and lines to buy water are not something I have seen before.”
Nor has she seen an ocean pier there one day, and likely gone the next.
Follow me: @evanhalper
3:05 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from an evacuee.
This article was originally published at 12:15 p.m.
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