Hurricane Ian’s devastation touches Minnesota

A man stands in front of a white van
Volunteer Rick Graft describes the upcoming American Red Cross Minneapolis mission to help Floridians impacted by Hurricane Ian on Wednesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Minnesota is more than a thousand miles from Florida, where Hurricane Ian is lashing the Gulf Coast today with torrential rains and damaging winds.

But the devastating storm is impacting current and former Minnesotans who either live in Florida, or are heading there to help with recovery efforts.

Janell Pepper decided not to take any chances with the first hurricane she’s experienced since moving from Minnesota to Florida last year.

Pepper left her Naples home along with her two cats on Monday, before the mandatory evacuation order. They headed about 100 miles east to a hotel in Deerfield Beach.

“It looked like the storm surge and depth of water could be potentially dangerous. And I thought, ‘I just don't want to wait,’” she said. “So I was playing it pretty conservative.”

Pepper, an attorney, was heading out Wednesday morning to fill up with gas and buy a few last-minute supplies. She said she has no idea how long it will be until it’s safe to return home.

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“I'm just hoping to go home to a house that's not damaged,” she said.

Pepper isn’t the only person with Minnesota ties whose life has been upended by Hurricane Ian.

Ava Brekhus, 18, of Prior Lake just started her freshman year at the University of Tampa in August. The impending hurricane forced her to return home to Minnesota on Monday. Flights were expensive and difficult for her and her roommates to find, Brekhus said.

“It was just a lot of chaotic things we had to worry about,” she said. “Everyone's parents were worrying, and we didn't know what to do. And it was just kind of frustrating, because I just started getting comfortable with where I was at.”

Brekhus said she packed in a hurry. “Like, I don't even have socks,” she said. “I just kind of left.”

Classes at her university have been canceled for the rest of the week. Brekhus said she had planned to return to Tampa on Friday, but now likely will postpone her flight until at least Sunday, depending on how serious the damage is.

“If it's still bad and it's flooded and all the trees are knocked down, then I'll have to probably stay here and do work online,” she said.

The Gulf Coast is a popular place for snowbirds and retirees fleeing the cold Minnesota winters. Retired National Weather Service and MPR News meteorologist Craig Edwards lives in Fort Myers where he’s riding out the storm about 20 miles inland.

“I'm thinking that at my house, we're going to look at about 90 to 95 mile an hour winds about four o'clock this afternoon,” he told MPR News’ Paul Huttner on Minnesota Now.

Edwards noted that southwest Florida has seen an explosion of growth in recent years, as retiring baby boomers have sought a warmer climate.

That means many people and homes are now directly in Ian’s path, where some of the strongest winds and catastrophic storm surges are expected. Edwards said he expects insurance rates to skyrocket after the storm.

“I think with this hurricane, it's going to be quite devastating to some expensive real estate in the southwest portion of Florida,” he said.

Fort Myers is also where the Minnesota Twins’ spring training facility is located. The team has evacuated that facility, and offered the space as a shelter for first responders.

The American Red Cross is sending more than 50 volunteers from Minnesota and the Dakotas to help with disaster recovery efforts. Four food service vans from Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth and Rapid City, South Dakota are preparing to deploy Thursday to wherever in Florida they're needed.

Volunteers will operate shelters and provide meals to make sure people who’ve evacuated have a safe and warm place to go, said Sue Thesenga, communications manager for the Red Cross in the Minnesota and Dakotas region.

“Our hearts just go out to people that are being affected by this disaster,” Thesenga said. “And we are really grateful for those volunteers that are taking time out of their busy schedules, and being away from their families to help support these people who need help.”

Rick Graft has been a Red Cross volunteer for 11 years. He’s helping prepare food trucks that will provide meals to Florida residents whose homes are damaged by the hurricane.

“The owners are usually in there cleaning up, and cold, tired, hungry. They can't cook a meal,” Graft said. “We’ll bring them a hot meal once or twice a day.”

About two dozen lineworkers, supervisors and mechanics from Duluth-based Minnesota Power and Superior Water, Light and Power are also on their way to Florida. They’ll help restore power in the Jacksonville area following wind damage that’s expected there.

Tim Laeupple, manager of line operations for Minnesota Power, said the mutual assistance team is expected to be in Florida for up to two weeks. They’re among more than 30,000 workers from 24 states being sent to Ian’s path.

“There's a ton of resources heading that direction right now, along with our guys too,” Laeupple said. “Power restoration really is just a huge team effort.”

With Hurricane Ian nearing Category 5 strength as it hits Florida, it’s likely much help will be needed in the weeks to come.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz told reporters on Wednesday that “our thoughts and our actions” are with Florida. He said the Minnesota National Guard is ready to respond if needed.