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Former Brainerd lakes area residents deal with Hurricane Ian

Hurricane Ian is plowing through Florida and many residents who used to be a part of the Brainerd lakes area are witnessing it firsthand.

Palm trees along a highway are blown by strong winds from Hurricane Ian.
Wind gusts blow across Sarasota Bay as Hurricane Ian churns to the south on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, in Sarasota, Florida. The storm made a U.S. landfall at Cayo Costa, Florida, on Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane with wind speeds exceeding 140 miles per hour in some areas. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/TNS)
Sean Rayford/TNS
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BRAINERD — Tornadoes, blizzards and thunderstorms are what Minnesotans are most familiar with, but hurricanes are not the usual forte for state residents.

Monica Nieman, however, is experiencing her first hurricane since moving to Tampa in April of 2021. Nieman was a long term Brainerd resident and former employee of the Brainerd Dispatch. Despite living near the storm’s path, Nieman chose to not evacuate.

Nieman lives on the third floor of a gated community and didn’t feel like the threat of Hurricane Ian was enough to make her evacuate. Flooding wouldn’t be an issue on the third floor and she would be above the treeline, so she decided to stay.

Hurricane Ian is currently traveling inland over Florida, but its path has changed course. Originally, it was supposed to hit Tampa head on, but has redirected south over Fort Myers.

Hurricane Ian was classified as a Category 4 hurricane with winds reaching as high as 150 MPH until late afternoon on Wednesday, Sept 28. It was then downgraded to a Category 3 hurricane as it continued to travel further inland.

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As of Wednesday evening, Nieman still had electricity and felt confident in her decision to stay. The hurricane had changed paths and instead of getting more water flooding, Tampa Bay had been drained of a majority of its water.

“What's the most interesting is the bay,” Nieman said. “We're in South Tampa. It's a peninsula, so the side we live on is Tampa Bay. On the other side of the peninsula is Hillsborough Bay, which is where downtown is and the hurricane is sucking all the water out of the bay. When I walked down to the water this morning, there was no water in the bay. Low tide is 3:30 in the morning, so it should be high tide right now and there's no water. You can walk out there right now and it's dry land. It's eerie.”

People watching Hurricane Ian in Tampa, Florida.
Aerial view of people that stopped along Bayshore Blvd. to see the effects of Hurricane Ian which produced a reverse storm surge, pulling water out of Hillsborough Bay on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022 in Tampa. (Luis Santana/Tampa Bay Times/TNS)
Luis Santana/TNS

Nieman and her daughter went out and got supplies, refilled prescriptions and felt prepared for the situation at hand.

“So we just made sure we had at least a week's supply of everything and then we just hunker down,” Nieman said.

Out of their gated community, most people evacuated. However, there were a couple that decided to stick around as well.

When the hurricane changed direction, Nieman was almost a little disappointed. She didn’t want to get hit by the hurricane head on, but she wanted to experience it. However, she mentioned the locals have a belief on why Tampa has never been hit hard by a hurricane.

According to Nieman, there is an old myth that the locals believe.

“There is a myth and you can look this up. There is an ancient burial ground, a Native American burial ground on Safety Harbor,” said Nieman. “There's a myth here in Tampa that that burial ground protects Tampa Bay. It's never been directly hit. I think it was hit once in 1921. That was the last time the hurricane had actually come through Tampa Bay. But the locals here truly believe that that burial ground protects Tampa Bay from harsh weather.”

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Despite no longer living in Brainerd, Nieman has had many old friends and acquaintances reach out to her during this time and mentioned that it was “really cool.”

Erin Novarro was another brave Florida resident who decided not to evacuate. Novarro, also a former Brainerd resident and 1992 graduate of Brainerd High School, lives in Bradenton, about 80 miles northwest of Fort Myers. Even though she was a decent distance away from the eye of the hurricane, Novarro was still witnessing its effects.

Novarro prepped about 20 containers of water and both their bathtubs filled with water in case they lost power. The bathwater will be used for washing their hair and bathing, as well as flushing the toilet. The water containers will be for drinking and brushing their teeth.

In addition to water, Novarro also froze all of their food using a penny as a method to tell if it was still good to eat. She froze everything in ice and also froze a cup with a penny at the top. If the penny sank to the bottom of the cup, then she knew that the food had thawed and refrozen, making it unsuitable to eat.

“We keep all the doors and windows closed because we don't want to let that equalize the pressure,” said Novarro. “Once the air gets in, it can actually take off our roof. So we have to be really careful. We do have a dog and so we look at the weather. During the squalls, when there's like a low, we try to kind of race out, let her go to the bathroom, and come back in.”

Novarro also reinforced their garages with locks and parked their cars very close to the garage doors in case of a flood.

Despite being prepared, the intense winds were still concerning Novarro. The strong winds create a huge threat for tornadoes in their area. Novarro described the situation as “probably the most intense (hurricane) they have ever experienced” and the wind made it feel as if “it's almost like the house is breathing.”

While the Dispatch reporter was on the phone with Novarro, the line abruptly went quiet and the connection was lost.

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Unlike the other two, Carla Staffon did not stick around to witness the hurricane. Staffon has a house in Venice and was supposed to be hit directly before the hurricane moved further south. Still, Venice is getting hit hard with all of the effects of Hurricane Ian.

Staffon was a long term employee of the Brainerd Dispatch, working in sales for 33 years. For the past few years, Staffon has split her time between her cabin in Walker and Venice, spending six months at each. However, at the beginning of September, the Staffons sold their cabin and moved down to Venice permanently.

They had put a new roof on their house and recently redone the ceiling. There were even contractors working on their house all day Tuesday. However, Staffon joked that she “would’ve done things differently” had she known what was headed her way.

After a lot of discussion, Staffon and her husband decided they would fly back to Minnesota and barely got a ticket home. They got their tickets on Saturday, Sept. 24 and flew home on Tuesday, Sept. 27.

After barely getting a plane ticket, Staffon also had a scare at the airport. Her husband and her flew out of Fort Myers. The Fort Myers airport was following the lead of the airport in Tampa, which meant it was going to close at 5 p.m. Their flight was scheduled to leave at 5:10 p.m. but luckily was changed to 4:50 p.m.

They have a place with family in Minnesota and do not want to go back to Venice until they are sure it is safe.

“The whole thing is almost comical,” Staffon said. “We moved down there two weeks ago and then we started doing these projects and here comes the hurricane.”

Staffon is content with her decision to evacuate and was informed that the damage is already bad. A theater in the downtown area has been completely gutted, leaving only the shell of the building in its place.

The Venice Facebook page also is showing posts that people haven’t heard from their family members in hours, leading Staffon to believe that towers or power is not working.

Hurricane Ian should continue to decrease in strength as it continues to move across Florida.

Read More
Conner Erickson's family is inviting the community to give the 17-year-old a warm welcome as he returns to Brainerd for the first time since Sept. 9, 2022.

SARA GUYMON, Brainerd Dispatch, staff writer, may be reached at 218-855-5851 or sara.guymon@brainerddispatch.com

Related Topics: SEVERE WEATHERWEATHER
Sara Guymon recently joined the Brainerd Dispatch as a staff writer.
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