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Florida families with Western Pa. ties prepare for Hurricane Irma

Matthew Santoni
| Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, 5:18 p.m.
A shelf normally containing packaged water sits empty at a Piggly Wiggly store Tueday, Sept. 5, 2017, in Panama City, Fla. Store managers informed shoppers that more water will be delivered on Sept.6 in the morning a residents prepare for Hurricane Irma. (Patti Blake/News Herald via AP)
A shelf normally containing packaged water sits empty at a Piggly Wiggly store Tueday, Sept. 5, 2017, in Panama City, Fla. Store managers informed shoppers that more water will be delivered on Sept.6 in the morning a residents prepare for Hurricane Irma. (Patti Blake/News Herald via AP)
Employees load plywood for customers in preparation for Hurricane Irma Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017 at Lowe's in Jacksonville, Fla. The U.S. National Hurricane Center says the Category 5 storm has winds of up to 185 mph (297 kph) as it approaches the Leeward Islands of the northeast Caribbean.  (Will Dickey/The Florida Times-Union via AP)
Employees load plywood for customers in preparation for Hurricane Irma Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017 at Lowe's in Jacksonville, Fla. The U.S. National Hurricane Center says the Category 5 storm has winds of up to 185 mph (297 kph) as it approaches the Leeward Islands of the northeast Caribbean. (Will Dickey/The Florida Times-Union via AP)
MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 05:  People line up to get their propane tanks filled as they prepare for Hurricane Irma on September 5, 2017 in Miami, Florida. It's still too early to know where the direct impact of the hurricane will take place but the state of Florida is in the area of possible landfall.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Getty Images
MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 05: People line up to get their propane tanks filled as they prepare for Hurricane Irma on September 5, 2017 in Miami, Florida. It's still too early to know where the direct impact of the hurricane will take place but the state of Florida is in the area of possible landfall. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Joseph, Jr., right, 15, of St. Petersburg, bends down to carry sandbags to his family's vehicle at Lealman Community Park, in St. Petersburg, Fla., Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, as residents prepare for Hurricane Irma. (Lara Cerri/Tampa Bay Times via AP)
Joseph, Jr., right, 15, of St. Petersburg, bends down to carry sandbags to his family's vehicle at Lealman Community Park, in St. Petersburg, Fla., Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, as residents prepare for Hurricane Irma. (Lara Cerri/Tampa Bay Times via AP)
This satellite image obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows Huricane Irma at 1930 UTC on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017.
AFP/Getty Images
This satellite image obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows Huricane Irma at 1930 UTC on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017.

Florida families with Pittsburgh-area ties nervously watched predictions Tuesday about Hurricane Irma's path and contemplated whether to evacuate or hunker down as the storm gathered intensity in the Atlantic.

The National Weather Service upgraded Irma to a Category 5 storm Tuesday morning, with sustained winds reaching up to 185 mph as it headed for the islands of the north Caribbean. Various models predicted it turning northward up the Florida peninsula. Whether it would more directly hit the Gulf or Atlantic coasts was unclear as of Tuesday.

Some Pittsburgh-area snowbirds, students and expatriates told the Tribune-Review they were uncertain whether they should stay or go as predictions for the storm had it reaching Florida late Friday or Saturday.

"Right now, we're sweating," said Debbie Nida, 66, formerly of Youngwood and now a Palm Harbor resident still on the fence about whether to evacuate. "My husband is at AAA right now looking for hotel rooms in Georgia, and we're preparing to get supplies for if we decide to stay here. It's getting really hectic here at the moment."

Monroe County, encompassing the Florida Keys and the southwestern tip of the peninsula, issued a mandatory evacuation order effective Wednesday morning for all visitors, tourists and non-residents. Stores were sold out of water and canned goods Monday night, and lines for gas Tuesday stretched for blocks from some gas stations.

Dan Ulmer, 35, had moved from Leechburg to Cocoa on Florida's east coast two years ago. He and his family left their home in 2016 when Hurricane Matthew skirted the east coast. They returned to downed trees, fallen power lines and no electricity for a few days, but the RV they'd fled in had a generator that let them power freezers and cell phone chargers for the neighborhood when they returned, Ulmer said.

Now, Ulmer must decide whether to load his wife, two daughters, two dogs and two cats, along with his sister-in-law and her husband, into that same RV and point it away from the storm, wherever that is.

"Hopefully the news down here will know soon enough what will happen," he said.

Kellie Benson of Boynton Beach placed a large Amazon order for diapers, formula and toys to occupy her 3-year-old and 9-month-old as her family prepared to ride out whatever the storm brings.

"We'll be putting our shutters up, but we can't make an informed decision," said Benson, 32, formerly of Greensburg. "So much of me wants to pick up and go north."

Anthony Capo, formerly of Latrobe, had to finish up a roofing job and get paid before deciding whether he, his girlfriend and his 3-year-old son would go north to avoid Irma. He moved to St. Cloud, outside Orlando, two years ago and evacuated to ride out Hurricane Matthew in a hotel over the Georgia line.

"I've never seen anything like a natural disaster down here — there was no water left at Wal-Mart," said Capo, 30. "Last year we couldn't find a hotel within 150 miles of Florida."

Jennifer Still was visiting her family in Greensburg on Tuesday and worrying about getting back to Tampa on Wednesday night — less because she feared the hurricane, and more because she would have little time to prepare.

"My dad today called me, really concerned because he's not been through anything like this. He wanted me to stay," said Still, 41, a former Greensburg resident who lived all around Florida through hurricanes Andrew, Ivan and Frances. "I'm not as scared because I've been through it so much."

Her boyfriend and his family have a grocery store, restaurant and restaurant-supply business that could cover her needs for food and water. But she worried that plywood, batteries and other supplies would be picked over by the time she returned to Tampa.

"We've got Thursday and Friday to prepare, if there's even anything left to prepare with," she said. "It's nerve-wracking, regardless."

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724 836 6660, msantoni@tribweb.com or on Twitter @msantoni.

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