Hurricane Ian hits ‘Michigan south’ and it affects all of us, even the Detroit Lions

Detroit Free Press

As Hurricane Ian hammered Florida on Wednesday, Alex Anzalone was in the Detroit Lions’ locker room, checking his phone, waiting for news from his family on the Gulf Coast.

“My parents are kind of in the brunt of it right now, and my grandma, too,” Anzalone said on Wednesday afternoon. “I’ve just kind of been texting them, just getting feedback from them.”

Anazalone owns a home near Clearwater Beach, known for its soft, white sand — one of the most beautiful beaches in Florida — and his father-in-law put up hurricane shutters on Anzalone’s house on Tuesday.

“We’re elevated,” he said. “We live on a bluff so it’s probably 25 feet up. We can see the water from my house.”

“What have you heard?” I asked.

“The house is fine but the beaches are getting destroyed,” he said.

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We tend to think of professional athletes as robots, assuming nothing affects them.

Or never really considering how they might be dealing with things.

But Ian had a direct impact on several Lions.

“Yeah, I called my folks,” defensive lineman Demetrius Taylor, whose family lives in Miami, said. “I was aware of the hurricane, but I wasn’t sure on the path it was taking, so I was making sure. I was making sure they were straight. How are my people doing? I’d hate to get a call and something crazy happens you know. They say the flooding is bad.”

Lions center Evan Brown has family members who live in the Florida panhandle. He, too, called his family, even though they don’t live in the storm’s direct path.

“They battened down the hatches,” he said. “They’re just expecting heavy rain and stuff up there but I got a couple a couple of buddies who live in the St. Petersburg area and they’re getting hit with the brunt of it. They’re still there.

“It’s always in the back of your mind, but there is only so much you can do from here. I know there’s the Waffle House index. If the Waffle House is closed, it’s time to get out … and they’re closed up right now.”

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A storm that feels next door

I got home and flicked on the TV.

The first thing I saw was a report from Bradenton, Florida. My grandparents used to live there. After they retired, they moved from Michigan to Florida and bought a mobile home.

Just like several of my friends’ grandparents.

Michiganders have a special connection to Florida.

Who doesn’t know somebody in Florida, or who hasn’t gone there on vacation?

When I was a kid, we would go to Bradenton every year. My dad would load up the Suburban, pull a trailer down I-75 and we’d stay in KOA Campgrounds along the way.

To me, I-75 always seemed like a giant pipeline filled with cars with Michigan license plates. Everybody rushing to the Sunshine State. Snowbirds. Families of snowbirds. And spring breakers — yeah, I did that, too. A couple of times. Everybody driving the same route, thinking the same thing: Will Georgia ever end?

All of that came back to me as I was watching the hurricane coverage.

I changed channels and there was a report was from Punta Gorda, which was getting hit hard.

I was in Punta Gorda last spring, visiting friends from Michigan. I attended a surprise 80th birthday party for the father of one of my friends — a guy retired from the Big Three, like most of our parents — and I looked around the room and it was filled with Michiganders.

What a beautiful area. Many homes are built on canals and people dock their boats, basically in their backyards. And I have to admit thinking: “Yeah, I could retire here.”

Now, it was getting hammered by Ian.

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Unspeakable devastation

It’s hard to fully grasp the devastation left by a hurricane.

I covered Hurricane Katrina, one of the most profound assignments of my career. I walked around New Orleans, which was deserted. The stench was incredible. The sights, unforgettable.

I went with a photographer and everything was hard — we would travel around the area with jugs of gasoline because all the stations were closed. To this day when I smell gasoline, I think of Katrina.

We visited shelters and saw countless damaged homes and uprooted trees, and I still cannot understand why people stay in place during a hurricane.

“You either leave because you don’t want to deal with power outages or you’re in a flood zone,” Anzalone said. “That’s really the main reason why you leave. It’s hard to leave your house when everything you’ve ever owned and all the special things you have.”

While Florida might seem like a long ways away, it’s not for many in Michigan. And it’s not to me.

Parts of Florida, especially on the Gulf Coast, have always felt like Michigan south. Just an extension of the mitten. Linked to us by I-75.

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And that is why this hits especially hard, even for people in Michigan. We all ache for Florida, hoping everyone is safe.

“My family is there and I’m checking on them every hour just to make sure everything’s alright,” Lions cornerback Amani Oruwariye, whose family lives in Tampa, said.  “Our hearts and prayers go out to everybody there.”


Contact Jeff Seidel: Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

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