As Hurricane Irma barreled toward south Florida this week, furniture store owner Michael Schumann told his employees to install 350-pound aluminum grates over the shop's front doors and then go home.

"No one's buying furniture," said Schumann, a Minnesotan who winters in Florida and has stores in both states.

For Minnesotans with vacation homes or businesses in Florida or the Caribbean, the storm's approach has meant days of anxiety about its strength, path and destructive capacity. And storm preparations took on frantic dimensions Thursday as the havoc Irma caused in parts of the Caribbean with its 175 mph winds became clear.

"Nobody knows exactly where it's going to go," said Bob Solomonson, a retiree from Stillwater who now makes his home in Florida. "That's the spooky part."

The Solomonsons live in the Villages, a planned community outside of Orlando. A "Minnesota club" there boasts 700 members.

To prepare for the storm's approach the Solomonsons stocked up on supplies, gassed up the car and filled the bathtub with water, in case the water supply is cut off.

People are emptying the shelves in grocery stores and hardware stores, said Solomonson. He searched for a long time before finding propane earlier this week, anticipating that he might need it to cook on the backyard grill if the power goes out.

During his search he saw a four-block line of cars waiting at the gas station, and home supply stores near Orlando were sold out of plywood. Some friends to the south in Fort Myers fled the city along with tens of thousands of others.

Everyone saw the damage in Houston from Harvey, said Solomonson. "That was a wake-up call."

Many of the thousands of Minnesotans who winter in Florida don't normally head south until next month, meaning that their storm preparations this week have been carried out long-distance.

The Schumanns contacted their Florida cleaning lady and asked her to lower their home's hurricane shutters. Two of the shutters malfunctioned, so the house is only partly protected, said Michael Schumann.

"What's really frustrating is the uncertainty of the path of these hurricanes," said Schumann. "You can't wait until the last minute because the amount of work that's required to get ready is so huge."

A friend of his went to the supermarket to stock up on supplies and found he was the 63rd person in the checkout line.

"Some people are heading north and some people are hunkering down," said Schumann. "We're just keeping our fingers crossed."

Denese Kruse, who also lives in the Villages, said she was hoping for the best, noting that her home is more than two hours from the ocean.

"The only thing we're hearing is that it could possibly go along up the East Coast and we're far enough — hopefully — inland that we're most likely going to see rain and wind but hopefully nothing beyond that. "This morning there wasn't a gas station in all of the Villages that had any gas," Kruse said. "Just to be on the safe side, our gas tank is full and we have water in the house and we have food and we have candles. We don't anticipate having to evacuate," she said.

"Tell other Minnesotans not to worry," she said. "We're not panicking."

Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747