Local snowbirds ride out Hurricane Ian in their Florida homes

One Gulf Coast snowbird from the DNN viewing area paced and prayed as the hurricane drew near, while another avoided it altogether
Published: Sep. 28, 2022 at 8:19 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Imagine being told you were safe from a hurricane, then just a few days later being trapped in your home when it veered your way.

And it was too late to go anywhere or do anything about it.

That is what Harlen Ulrich was experiencing when Dakota News Now talked to him over the phone — he was without electricity — in his small Fort Myers area condo on Wednesday afternoon.

”I’ve done a lot of pacing today, I’ll be honest,” Ulrich said. “The prayers have been said, and again, that’s out of my hands at that point in time.”

Harlen — who has lived in the Minneota, Minn., area (near Marshall) for 22 years — is currently alone in the “snowbird” dwelling he has shared with his brother for the past seven years in Port Charlotte, about two miles from the shore of the Gulf Coast.

He just arrived a couple weeks ago and typically stays there in the blissfully warm months between September and May, with a break where he flies back to see family and friends over the December holidays.

Local weather forecasters warned of the impending cyclone late last week, so Harlan stocked up on groceries.

On Sunday, residents were told the storm would drift away, north and west, toward the Gulf of Mexico and Florida panhandle. So he stayed put instead of evacuating.

But by Tuesday, instead of being in the clear, Harlen was left to ride out the storm after it reversed course, back toward him.

“By then, it was almost too late to try and do anything because they had shut down a lot of the highways and things like that,” Harlen said.

So, for the 24 hours from Tuesday afternoon through Wednesday at about 5 p.m., all he could do was shut his windows, put hurricane shutters over them, take take a peek from time to time to see his car still in the driveway, and both hear and feel the wind whipping like, well, a hurricane, at gusts up to 75 mph.

“It’s like looking outside when you have a winter storm,” Harlen said. “You can see across the street, and then minutes later, you can’t.”

While Ulrich helplessly paces and prays, Karen and Loris Kohler of South Dakota sigh in relief about two hours north, in their Hudson, Florida, house near Tampa and St. Petersburg, about a mile from the coast.

They were originally in striking distance of the Ian’s path, having been told it would hit within 20 miles. The Kohlers took inside everything on their property that could blow away and become weapons for other property and humans.

They, too, stocked up on groceries and supplies. Karen said the Walmart eight minutes from their house almost ran out of toilet paper and water, and there was a serious gas shortage, as residents filled up their vehicles and portable gas tanks for their generators in the event of losing electricity in their homes.

She and Loris filled their bathtubs with water to save drinking water.

But Karen and Loris never planned on evacuating, partly because they live at least somewhat inland, about a mile off the coast, and also because their house sits 17 feet above sea level. They also stayed put once the storm moved away. But that didn’t make the decision easy.

Dark clouds came and at times the rain “fell pretty good,” but most of the time it was light, “but the trees were just whipping around.”

The hurricane changed its path, but not before some of the Kohler’s neighbors fled for where they thought they’d be safe, and where the storm wasn’t expected to move.

”Most of them moved to around the Orlando area, and now that’s going to get hit,” Karen said. “So, it’s always dicey on which way to go.”

The Kohlers spent most of their adult lives in Sioux Falls and still spend their summers at their cabin Lake Madison, South Dakota.

While scary and “stressful,” Karen said potential deadly disasters in Florida will not keep them from living in Florida during the fall and winter, where they’ve been for 25 years.

This isn’t their first hurricane scare.

”It just becomes a way of life,” Karen said. “It’s no different than you getting ready for a blizzard. Would you move because you had a blizzard, or would you just do the shoveling, freeze your fingers and toes, and keep it up? It is what it is.”

And the Kohlers moved to Florida to get away from snow and cold.

“I like so much of the rest of it,” Karen said. “The trees and the flowers and the birds through the winter, I like that the best. I still love it. You can’t shovel sunshine.”

Harlen, too, plans to keep “wintering” in Port Charlotte. Like the Kohlers, he purposefully a bought places that was at least a mile away from the coast so he and his property wouldn’t ever suffer the worst of Mother Nature’s wrath.

“I still enjoy (living here),” Harlen said. “You just have to deal with it, and hopefully things will turn out.”