Shutters, sandbags and evacuation plans: Hutchinson Island prepares for Hurricane Dorian

Under Friday’s beating afternoon sun, the only sounds heard on many of the beaches on Hutchinson Island came from the wind and waves. The scene offered a postcard image of Old Florida’s coastline, a lightly developed spit of land populated by folks who prefer a quiet life.

As Hurricane Dorian churned far offshore, locals had some concerns about the scars the storm could leave on their slice of the Treasure Coast.

“There’s little left of this,” said Larry Weiner, sweat dripping from his nose as he took a break from filling plastic bags with sand.

“The Real Florida,” said Pete Tesch, from the other side of the mound.

Weiner drove up to St. Lucie County from Pembroke Pines to tend to a property he owns. Given the uncertain location of Dorian’s landfall, he’s got a second round of preparations back home in Broward planned for Saturday.

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The wind and waves might be welcoming now, but they could get fierce in the coming days. Folks here would like Dorian, now a category 4 storm, to take a sharp turn out to sea.

Dewitt Smith, 37, center, and his son, Knox Smith, 5, fill a wheelbarrow with sand in preparation for Hurricane Dorian at Jaycee Park near their home on Hutchinson Island on Friday, August 30, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER

Tesch, who’s lived on the island for six years, worries about his 86-year-old mother. She lives on the island too. They’re both storm veterans, but Dorian’s increasing strength is concerning.

“We’ll evacuate if it looks like a direct hit,” Tesch said.

The city of Fort Pierce dumped sand in the park and invited residents to bring-your-own-bags. They shared a few laughs when a reporter asked how they felt with Dorian looming.

“Well, my back’s killing me,” said Danny Marcello, leaning on his shovel.

Danny Marcello, from Fort Pierce, loads bags of sand in preparation for Hurricane Dorian at Jaycee Park on Hutchinson Island on Friday, August 30, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER

The mood is light and people are hoping for the best. They’re taking preparations seriously while wondering whether it will make sense to leave if an evacuation is called.

Marcello plans to stay on the island in their townhouse with his partner and their children — an Australian Shepherd named Hazel, a Chihuahua named Chico and baby monk parakeet named Cupid, the latest addition.

The bigger concern: They’re waiting to find out when Marcello’s partner will be relieved from his job at a service place on Florida’s Turnpike. He doesn’t want to be separated in the event police block off the access to the island.

“They will close the bridges,” he said.

John Stasio, 53, has a drink outside his home after changing his mind about putting up storm shutters on Hutchinson Island in Fort Pierce on Friday, August 30, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER

Further south, where single-family homes push right up to beach dunes, Frank Palmer took a break in the shade of a palm tree in front of his two-story house. It’s a “good, solid day’s work” for him to put up shutters on his non-impact windows.

“Some people get really stressed out, but I just like to do it early so I can take it easy,” he said.

A Florida resident for 47 years, Palmer said police will cruise through neighborhoods advising people to leave if Dorian poses a direct threat. It happened in 2017, when Hurricane Irma sparked the largest evacuation in Florida’s history.

He went north to stay with family in Orlando and still caught a piece of the storm. Nevertheless, he’d do it again.

“I’ll keep checking the updates and then make a decision,” he said.

Joey Flechas covers government and public affairs in the city of Miami for the Herald, from votes at City Hall to neighborhood news. He won a Sunshine State award for revealing a Miami Beach political candidate’s ties to an illegal campaign donation. He graduated from the University of Florida.