Why Tampa Bay faces high storm surge flood risk as Hurricane Ian nears

Mark Luther, a marine sciences professor who lives in a neighborhood in St. Petersburg, Fla. that juts out into Tampa Bay, summed up his feelings about Hurricane Ian in two words Monday:

Luther, an oceanography physics expert at the University of South Florida who manages the region’s tide gauges, understands better than most how vulnerable this densely populated area is to the combination of storm and high tides — and how lucky it was dodged a direct hit from a major hurricane in the past century.

As he discussed how sea level rise and a development boom have exacerbated risk around Tampa Bay, with so much more property and people at risk than there were decades ago, he was busy moving his own vehicles and valuable possessions to higher ground to bring terrain.

“The street in front of my house gets flooded in a bad tide,” said Luther, who lives near the border of the low-lying neighborhoods of Shore Acres and Venetian Isles, just steps from the shore.

Coming Storm in Tampa Bay: Sea level rise could cause massive damage if a major hurricane hits the region

Two years ago, water from Tropical Storm Eta crept into his garage and slammed on his door. This relatively mild storm brought waves several feet high, enough to submerge 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 exact height and strength, as well as the path he will ultimately take as he strolls up the Gulf of Mexico, remained uncertain as of Monday night. But this much is clear: The Tampa Bay region that’s in the crosshairs, with nearly 700 miles of shoreline and a population of more than 3 million, is one of the most prone places in the United States for severe flooding should a catastrophic hurricane hit a direct hit .

A few years ago, a Boston company that analyzes potential catastrophic losses determined that a storm the size of Hurricane Katrina could inflict $175 billion in damage to the region. A previous World Bank study named Tampa Bay — home to Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater and a collection of other beach towns and low-lying communities — one of the 10 most vulnerable metropolitan areas in the world.

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“The fact that this could be larger than anything we’ve seen before is very concerning,” said Libby Carnahan, a Florida Sea Grant agent and founder of the Tampa Bay Climate Science Advisory Panel, formed in 2014 to study the To help area leaders better understand rising flood risks and find ways to become more resilient.

Data shows that the Tampa Bay region has experienced significant sea level rise over the past few generations. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been measuring sea level in St. Petersburg since 1947 and has recorded an increase of nearly 9 inches since records began.

In recent years there are signs that the pace of change is increasing. For example, NOAA data shows that sea levels in St. Petersburg have been rising at a rate of nearly 3 millimeters per year since 1947 and at a much faster rate since 1990.

The region’s climate advisory panel wrote in a 2019 set of recommendations that “there is broad scientific consensus” that sea level rise will continue, and that “cities across the Tampa Bay area are likely to experience a litany, if none.” adaptation strategies are implemented”. of damage and increasing threats to public health. These include: flooding of homes and public infrastructure, severe beach erosion, deteriorating drinking and sanitation facilities, and a decline in local ecosystems.

Meanwhile, years ago, the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council simulated a worst-case hurricane to show local leaders what could happen if such a storm were heading their way. The fictional Phoenix hurricane scenario predicted that the storm could destroy nearly half a million homes and businesses, leaving millions of residents needing medical attention and thousands of dead.

The group has 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 about 17,000 jobs as a direct result [sea-level rise].”

What is storm surge and what causes it during hurricanes

“We have such a density of people, and we’ve put our most valuable real estate and tax base in really the most vulnerable areas,” Carnahan said.

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Given this reality, a devastating storm that inundates a large number of buildings could force the area to reconsider where it’s safe to rebuild — and where it isn’t. “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 was Pinellas County’s director of emergency management until her retirement in 2018, also felt uncomfortable Monday about what the coming days could bring. She said it didn’t take a Category 5 monster to do widespread damage around Tampa Bay. A less powerful storm could still wreak havoc.

“As an emergency manager who knows too much, it doesn’t give me warm fuzzies knowing what we’re dealing with, how this is playing out,” Bishop said. “We’ve been blessed many, many times, but eventually 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 seek shelter during and after storms.

But the reality, she said, is that Pinellas County in particular is bounded by water on three sides and is home to fragile barrier islands, all of which are vulnerable to high winds and storm surges. Should a violent hurricane enter Tampa Bay, the resulting winds and waves could devastate downtown Tampa and surrounding neighborhoods. “There’s no place for all that water,” she said.

Additionally, a slow-moving system dumping massive amounts of rain, which Ian could become, would likely cause massive power outages, overload water systems, and cause dangerous flooding.

“I pray we don’t experience the worst-case scenario that we’ve always planned and worried about,” Bishop said. But she added, “You have to watch out for that.”

Local officials were certainly paying attention Monday and asking residents to do the same.

“At 6 to 8, 10 feet of water – and remember, this is like a wall of water coming in – it’s going to come on very quickly, very hard. This could knock homes off their foundations,” Cathie Perkins, Pinellas County’s director of emergency management, said at a news conference, imploring residents to evacuate.

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“There will be significant debris and damage, roads could be washed away, bridges could be affected,” she added. “Most high-rise buildings, all their electrical equipment, elevators, all of that is downstairs. All of that will be washed away.”

Perkins said the ground is already saturated and the storm is slowing in ways that could allow it to sit over the area for days dumping catastrophic amounts of rain. She said workers are pumping nearby lakes to create capacity, but she still expects destructive flooding.

“I am a native. I understand we’ve seen horrors and things like that before. Sometimes that leads to people taking things for granted,” said Charlie Justice, Pinellas County Commissioner. “I would tell you, now is not the time. There is no scenario in which we will not feel a significant impact.”

As local leaders began issuing evacuation orders for some residents on Monday, Debbie Amis and her husband, owners of Gulfport’s Tiki Bar and Grill, were doing everything they could to prepare for the potential impact on their restaurant just a stone’s throw away is the water.

“We expect to be really affected by this,” she said, noting that even in heavy rain, the property can become flooded. The couple and their employees spent part of Monday moving tables and chairs and preparing to board up windows if necessary.

“There’s not much of a buffer [from the water] until it gets to us,” Amis said. “We just keep our fingers crossed and do our best.”

A dozen miles away, Luther, the USF scientist, was doing the same.

After moving what he could to higher ground and knocking down his house on the bay, he made plans to go to a hotel stay he had reserved near Disney World, where he would visit Epcot theme park and on hope the best for its beauty and fragile city.

“At least I can drink margarita and listen to my favorite mariachi band while my house blows away,” he said. “I can’t do anything else.”

Karin Brulliard and Chris Mooney contributed to this report.