EAST NAPLES, Fla. — It was a slow Monday at Gator's Crossroads, but owners Kurt Stephens and Linda Pauly were happy just to have doors to open at all.
Nearly a dozen people sat drinking beer and dragging on cigarettes as a cool afternoon breeze weaved through the restaurant, its doors propped open with leftover sandbags.
Hours earlier, Gator’s Crossroads had acted as a makeshift shelter for five regulars who had nowhere else to go as the eye of Hurricane Irma roared its way up the state’s west coast.
“We were all nervous, but none of us really showed it,” Stephens, 53, said. “I guess it was an experience because we didn’t have the windows boarded up. We actually saw what was happening.”
In preparation for the impending storm, those windows were adorned with messages to ward off Irma. “Kiss my a--, Irma!” one read, while another said, “Fear me Irma!”
Pauly, 53, who moved to Florida from Wisconsin eight years ago and experienced her first hurricane on Sunday, said the fear inside Gator’s was palpable.
“There was always a nervous energy,” she said. “Nobody talked about how scared they were, but you could see it in everybody’s eyes. You could see it in their sense of humor going.”
Pauly said she woke up Sunday morning to make breakfast before the power went out. She said as soon as she finished cooking up bacon, eggs and potatoes, the restaurant went dark.
“I was like, ‘All right, here we go,’” she said.
The group then hunkered down to watch and wait as the storm battered the vehicles and businesses in their view. Pauly said she watched as the raging winds appeared to lift her car on to two wheels. Trees were toppled. Part of Gator’s sign ripped apart.
“It was like being on a ship or in the Alaskan tundra,” David Fowkes, 54, who rode out the storm at the bar, said of the wind and water slapping the windows.
Pauly said she was most nervous when Fowkes’ 17-year-old golden retriever, Buddy, began to get anxious as the eye of the storm passed over the bar. But once Buddy relaxed, Pauly said she did, too.
“Nobody talked about how scared they were, but you could see it in everybody’s eyes."
“It was definitely scary. I’m not regretting any of it because we picked a secure place even though people doubted us, but I really felt this structure was safe,” Pauly said. “The building stayed strong. None of us took it lightly.”
Although they were locked inside a bar, Pauly said no one was focused on alcohol.
“It would have been nice to have a big party and a drunk-fest and play games,” Pauly said. “That didn’t happen. That’s a misnomer. It was not a good time to be had.”
Once the storm had passed, Pauly, Stephens and their customers ventured outside only to realize just how lucky they had been during the storm.
A Texaco gas station next door had its roof ripped off, while downed power lines leaned away from U.S. 41, where the restaurant is.
Now the exhausted couple is trying to figure out what losses are still to come from Irma — specifically how much business and thousands of dollars of food will be lost until the power comes back on.
More than 193,000 people were still without electricity early Tuesday in Collier County, where Gator’s is, according to Florida Power & Light. More than 3 million people were without power across the state.
Pauly and Stephens said that in future hurricanes, they’re going to leave town. But if they had a re-do on Irma, they would offer shelter again, just the same.
“That helped us,” Stephens said. “We have so many friends in this town. It helped us to worry about them.”