Lakeland hotels draw Hurricane Ian evacuees from west

Dave Burt of St. Petersburg stands with his golden retriever, Trucks, outside Hyatt Place in Lakeland on Tuesday morning. Burt and his wife, Lindsey, evacuated as Hurricane Ian approached.
Dave Burt of St. Petersburg stands with his golden retriever, Trucks, outside Hyatt Place in Lakeland on Tuesday morning. Burt and his wife, Lindsey, evacuated as Hurricane Ian approached.

LAKELAND — The largely empty parking lots at many Lakeland hotels Tuesday morning presented a deceiving picture.

Samantha Sellers backed her truck into a parking space at the Hyatt Place hotel at the RP Funding Center shortly after checking in. Sellers, a U.S. Marine Corps Corporal, was among many military members ordered to evacuate from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

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Sellers, 28, was joined by a friend, Teresa Keka, whose husband is in the Air Force and also had evacuated from MacDill to stay at the Lakeland hotel.

Sellers, who has been stationed at MacDill for about 3½ years, hails from California and said she had experience earthquakes but not hurricanes.

“Honestly, being a part of the military, you’ve got to be ready for anything,” Sellers said. “So we’ve just got to work with what we’ve got and make sure everyone's safe and do our part.”

Sellers said it took some searching to find a hotel that would allow her to bring her cat, Garfield. She said employees at Hyatt Place told her they had booked many reservations for people evacuating because of Hurricane Ian.

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“They said it’s been huge,” she said. “I mean, everywhere I've called they’ve been booked up with everybody traveling. That’s including Orlando.”

Keka, 23, said an employee told her the hotel had 70 book-ins Tuesday morning. That apparently included groups traveling in one vehicle. Others had reservations but hadn’t checked in yet.

Keka said they would be joined by a friend of her husband’s who also evacuated from the Tampa area.

A former Boston resident, Keka said she doesn’t have experience with hurricanes.

“I'm usually a snowstorm kind of girl and, you know, do some shoveling in the morning,” she said.

Dave Burt walked his golden retriever, Trucks, through the parking lot and into a grassy area near Sikes Boulevard. He said he and his wife, Lindsey, had checked in Tuesday morning.

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Burt, 35, said he lived in an area of southern St. Petersburg that didn’t face a mandatory evacuation, but his home is close enough to the Gulf of Mexico that he and Lindsey decided not to stay.

“We booked this a week ago, just in preparation, in case,” Burt said.

It wasn’t Burt’s first time to take refuge in Lakeland during a hurricane. He said he fled Fort Lauderdale during Hurricane Irma in 2017, coming to Lakeland and inadvertently winding up in the path of the storm. He recalled staying at the Terrace Hotel downtown and seeing awnings ripped off the front of the historic structure.

Burt said he chose Hyatt Place this time because it allows guests to bring dogs. Trucks is less than a year old.

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The couple boarded up their house before leaving, but Burt said he worried they might return to find that it had flooded. Forecasts say Hurricane Ian could bring a storm surge into Pinellas not seen for more than a century.

But not all of Burt’s neighbors were evacuating.

“We have neighbors across the street that are really new to Florida, and they didn't even think about the storm until yesterday,” he said. “They're asking us what our thoughts were, and I was thinking, ‘It's a little bit late to start planning.’”

Gary White can be reached at or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Ian: Lakeland hotels draw evacuees from Hillsborough, Pinellas counties