Why Tampa Bay faces a high risk of storm surge flooding as Hurricane Ian approaches
As he spoke of how rising sea levels and the development boom have heightened the risk around Tampa Bay, with so many more properties and people at risk than decades ago, he was busy moving his own vehicles and valuables to higher ground.
“The street in front of my house is flooded during a bad high tide,” said Luther, who lives near the border of the lower Shore Acres and Venetian Isles neighborhoods, just steps from the waterfront.
Upcoming storm in Tampa Bay: Rising sea levels could cause massive damage if a major hurricane hits the area
Two years ago, the waters of Tropical Storm Eta crept into his garage and lapped at his door. This relatively mild storm produced several feet of surge, enough to flood hundreds of nearby homes and cause millions of dollars in damage.
Luther knows this week has the potential to bring something far worse — that Ian could be the storm officials have feared for decades.
Ian’s precise size and strength, as well as the path he will ultimately take as he sails up the Gulf of Mexico, remained unclear as of Monday night. But it is clear: the Tampa Bay area in its sights, with nearly 700 miles of shoreline and more than 3 million residents, is one of the most vulnerable places in the United States to severe flooding if a catastrophic hurricane were to score a direct hit.
Several years ago, a Boston firm that analyzes potential catastrophic damage found that the region could suffer $175 billion in damage from a storm the size of Hurricane Katrina. An earlier World Bank study called Tampa Bay — home to Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater and a slew of other beach towns and low-lying communities — one of the world’s 10 most at-risk metropolitan areas.
“The fact that this could be bigger than anything we’ve seen is very concerning,” said Libby Carnahan, Florida Sea Grant officer and founder of the Tampa Bay Climate Science Advisory Panel, formed in 2014 to help climate change leaders. region to better understand the climb. flood risks and finding ways to become more resilient.
The data shows that the Tampa Bay area has experienced considerable sea level rise over the past few generations. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, has been measuring sea levels in St. Petersburg since 1947, recording a rise of nearly 9 inches since recording began.
In recent years, there are signs that the pace of change is accelerating. For example, NOAA data shows that seas have risen at a rate of almost 3 millimeters per year in St. Petersburg since 1947 and much faster since 1990.
The region’s climate advisory board wrote in a 2019 set of recommendations that “there is broad scientific consensus” that sea level rise will continue and that “if strategies to adaptation are not implemented, cities in the Tampa Bay area will likely experience “a litany. damage and growing threats to public health. Among them: flooding of private residences and public infrastructure, severe erosion of beaches, deterioration of drinking water and sanitation facilities and decline of local ecosystems.
Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council simulated the worst hurricane years ago to show local leaders what could happen if such a storm headed their way. The fictional Hurricane Phoenix scenario predicted that the storm could destroy nearly half a million homes and businesses, millions of residents could require medical attention, and thousands could perish.
The group also estimated that without a coordinated response, “the regional economy could lose more than $15 billion in real estate value, $5 billion in property tax revenue and approximately 17,000 jobs as a direct result of [sea-level rise].”
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“We have such a density of people, and we’ve placed our most valuable real estate and tax base in the really most vulnerable areas,” Carnahan said.
Given this reality, a devastating storm that inundates large numbers of structures could force the region to wonder where it’s safe to rebuild — and where it’s not. “We haven’t had to make too many of these decisions in this area” in the past, Carnahan said. “It’s something difficult that we don’t want to talk about.”
Sally Bishop, who until her retirement in 2018 was Pinellas County’s director of emergency management, also felt uneasy Monday about what the days ahead might bring. She said a Category 5 monster shouldn’t cause widespread damage around Tampa Bay. A less powerful storm could still wreak havoc.
“As an emergency manager who knows too much, it doesn’t make me want to know what we’re dealing with, how it’s going,” Bishop said. “We have been blessed many times before, but at some point your luck runs out.”
Bishop said she and other local officials had worked hard in recent years to strengthen the area’s defenses and ensure people had reliable places to shelter during and after storms.
But the reality, she said, is that Pinellas County in particular is bordered by water on three sides and home to fragile barrier islands, all of which are susceptible to high winds and storm surges. Meanwhile, if a powerful hurricane were to enter Tampa Bay, the resulting winds and waves could devastate downtown Tampa and surrounding neighborhoods. “There’s no room for all that water,” she says.
On top of that, a sluggish system that dumps massive amounts of rain, which Ian could become, would likely cause massive power outages, overwhelm water systems, and create dangerous flooding.
“I’m praying that we don’t see the worst-case scenario that we’ve always anticipated and that worries us,” Bishop said. But, she added, “it’s something to be careful about.”
Local authorities were certainly paying attention on Monday and imploring residents to do the same.
“In 6 to 8, 10 feet of water – and remember, it’s like a wall of water coming in – it will come in very quickly, very forcefully. It could push houses off their foundations,” said Pinellas County Director of Emergency Management Cathie Perkins at a press conference, pleading with residents to evacuate.
“There is going to be significant debris and damage, roads could be washed out, bridges could be hit,” she added. “Most high-rise buildings, all of their electrical equipment, the elevators, it’s all on the ground floor. All of this will be taken away.
Perkins said the ground is already saturated and the storm is slowing in a way that could see it sit over the area for days, dumping cataclysmic amounts of rain. She said workers are pumping nearby lakes to build capacity, but she still expects destructive flooding.
“I am native. I understand that we have already seen scares and other things. Sometimes that causes people to take things for granted,” Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice said. “I would tell you that now is not the time to do that. There is no scenario where we will not feel significant impacts.
As local leaders began issuing evacuation orders for some residents on Monday, Debbie Amis and her husband, owners of the Tiki Bar and Grill in Gulfport, were doing everything they could to prepare for possible impacts to their restaurant. , which is a stone’s throw from the water.
“We expect to be really affected by this,” she said, noting that the property can start to flood even in heavy rain. The couple and their employees spent part of Monday moving tables and chairs and preparing to close windows if necessary.
“There’s not a lot of buffer [from the water] until it reaches us,” Amis said. “We’re just keeping our fingers crossed, doing our best.”
Ten miles away, Luther, the USF scientist, was doing the same.
After moving what he could to higher ground and closing his house by the bay, he planned to leave for a stay at the hotel he had booked near Disney World, where he plans to visit the Epcot theme park and hoping for the best for its beautiful and fragile city.
“At least I can drink margarita and listen to my favorite mariachi band while my house flies away,” he said. “I can’t do anything else.”
Karin Brulliard and Chris Mooney contributed to this report.