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'Like you'd imagine an apocalypse': Buffalo-area expats ride out Hurricane Ian

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Hurricane Ian has devastated the Fort Myers area. Some people floated on freezers to escape

This aerial photo shows damaged homes and debris in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian on September 29 in Fort Myers, Florida.

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Jason Kobza got some unexpected family time, but not in the relaxing, refreshing way.

During the throes of Hurricane Ian, the Category 4 disaster that hammered southwest Florida this week, Kobza was about 40 miles north of the eye, which stared down Fort Myers and Naples. Still, he and his wife, toddler and baby spent more than two days barricaded without power in their Sarasota house, joined by his parents, who were forced to evacuate from their home in Bradenton, Fla.

"We played a lot of Scrabble," Kobza said.

Hurricane shutters protected the Kobzas' concrete home from wind gusts that exceeded 80 mph Wednesday night, and unlike Fort Myers, Sarasota avoided the storm surge flooding that reportedly exceeded 8 feet in areas nearby. Confident in the protection of his house, Kobza, who grew up in Lancaster and attended the University at Buffalo, still was in awe of the hurricane's power, which peaked between 6 and 9 that night, he said.

"Palm trees were completely bent over, large oaks and magnolias were shaking violently," Kobza said via a Facebook message, due to lack of phone data and spotty cell service. "You could see the winds rushing down the street pushing the rain sideways. It looked like you’d imagine an apocalypse."

While paling in comparison to the storm surges that cascaded through entire neighborhoods in Fort Myers, Kobza said being in the dark – literally and figuratively – was unnerving.

"The intensity of the wind and rain was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The hardest part is when you lose power/data and you have no idea what is happening and how long we were going to be dealing with the punishing winds."

Kobza, who's lived in Sarasota since 2012, said there were two military Hummers in the neighborhood and "hundreds of vehicles from all over the country" in preparation for Ian's path. 

His power was restored at 2:30 a.m. Friday, Kobza said, and he was able to first view the devastation of nearby Fort Myers.

"I think Sarasota dodged a bullet," he reflected.

The news was not as good for employees of his charter boat company, Low Tide Tours. Two of his captains, he said, could not access their home in Englewood, roughly halfway between Sarasota and Fort Myers along the west coast. 

An hour north in Tampa, Buffalo-area expats prepared early this week for the worst. Storm predictions zeroed in on the city, which had not experienced a major hurricane in about a century.

Lisa Esposito, an Orchard Park native who works as a nurse at St. Joseph's Women's Hospital in Tampa, compared the worry about the impending storm to how Western New Yorkers would prepare for a blizzard. Grocery store shelves were empty, bottled water was nowhere to be found and gas stations were without gas, she said. 

The threat was real enough that all Tampa hospitals called a "disaster code," which signals to employees to begin emergency operations. Esposito's hospital was locked down, and all visitors required to leave by 5 p.m. Tuesday, per county ordinance. She said that's happened only once before in her tenure in the hospital: before Hurricane Irma struck five years ago.

Ian largely spared inland Tampa, although coastal areas were given evacuation orders and suffered more damage. Esposito's family never lost power, which gave her a glimpse through social media and friends to the devastation two hours south.

"It's so awful, especially considering they had very little notice," she said. "We’ve had a few days to prepare, and I think they had less than 24 hours."

Danny Galuski, a real estate broker who grew up on Buffalo's East Side but moved to Tampa about 20 years ago, said he expected from the storm "five direct hits, but they all dissipated," he said.

Still, Galuski – the former owner of Buffalo bars Danny's Essex Street Pub and Merlin's on Elmwood – heard harrowing stories from friends and former clients as he cleaned up debris and tree limbs scattered outside his home. He said one told him that waves of water had kissed a second-story balcony, while another saw pontoons and yachts floating down streets. He referenced the images of the destroyed bridge that once connected Fort Myers to Sanibel and Captiva. 

"We're blessed in Tampa that we didn't get it," Galuski said Thursday, "but I don't feel good for the people who got hit hard."

Ben Tsujimoto can be reached at btsujimoto@buffnews.com, at (716) 849-6927 or on Twitter at @Tsuj10.

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