ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — It’s been more than a century since a major storm like Hurricane Ian hit the Tampa Bay area, which has burgeoned from a few hundred thousand people in 1921 to more than 3 million today.
Many of these people live in low-lying areas that are highly vulnerable to storm surges and flooding that they have rarely experienced before, which some experts say could be made worse by the impact effects of climate change.
The problem the region faces is that storms come from the south, such as Hurricane Ian is on course drive huge amounts of water into shallow Tampa Bay, likely inundating homes and businesses. The adjacent Gulf of Mexico is also flat.
“Strong, sustained winds are going to push a lot of water into the bay and it has nowhere to go, so it just builds up,” said Brian McNoldy, a senior research associate at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric and Earth Science. “Tampa Bay is very prone to flooding because of its orientation.”
The National Hurricane Center is forecasting storm surges in Tampa Bay and surrounding waters between 5 and 10 feet (1.5 and 3 meters) above normal tidal conditions and rainfall between 10 and 15 inches (12 and 25 centimeters) due to Hurricane Ian.
“That’s a lot of rain. That’s not going to drain quickly,” said Cathie Perkins, director of emergency management for Pinellas County, where St. Petersburg and Clearwater are located. “This is no joke. This is a life-threatening storm surge.”
Officials in the area began issuing evacuation orders for much of Tampa on Monday, with the St. Petersburg area to follow soon. The evacuations could affect 300,000 people or more in Hillsborough County alone.
Gov. Ron DeSantis took note of the region’s vulnerability in a news conference Monday afternoon in Largo, Fla.
“If you look at the Tampa Bay area, one of the reasons we fear storms is clearly the sensitivity of that area and the fragility of that area,” DeSantis said.
The last time Tampa Bay was hit by a major storm was October 25, 1921. The hurricane had no official name but is known locally as the Tarpon Springs storm because of the coastal city’s reputation for its sponge diving docks and Greek heritage is famous came ashore.
This hurricane’s storm surge, estimated at Category 3 with winds up to 129 mph (207 km/h), was set at 11 feet (3.3 meters). At least eight people died and damage was estimated at the time at $5 million.
Now the tourist-friendly region known for its sugar-sand beaches has grown by leaps and bounds, with homes and businesses along the waterfront being the ideal locations — most of the time. Hurricane Ian could threaten all of these developments.
For example, the city of Tampa had a population of about 51,000 in 1920. Today it is almost 395,000. Many of the other cities in the region have seen similar explosive growth.
A report by Boston-based disaster modeling firm Karen Clark and Co. concluded in 2015 that Tampa Bay is the most vulnerable place in the US to storm surge from a hurricane, losing $175 billion in damage. A World Bank study conducted a few years earlier ranked Tampa as the seventh most severely storm-prone city in the world.
But for years, storms seemed to inexplicably sweep past the region. Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist in the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University, noted that since 1851, only one in five Category 3 or greater hurricanes has struck Tampa Bay.
“In general, cyclones that passed across the Gulf of Mexico tended to pass well north of Tampa,” the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration said in a report on the 1921 storm.
Also lurking in the waves and wind are the effects of climate change and rising sea levels, which scientists say is causing it.
“Due to global warming, global climate models predict that hurricanes will likely cause more intense rainfall and have an increased risk of coastal flooding due to higher storm surges due to rising sea levels,” said Angela Colbert, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. wrote in a June report.
McNoldy, a University of Miami researcher, found that Hurricane Andrew’s storm surge would be 17 centimeters higher today than it was 30 years ago when that storm hit South Florida.
“As sea levels rise, the same storm surge can inundate more areas because the baseline on which it occurs is higher,” McNoldy said.
Amidst all the science, a local legend has it that the blessings of the Native Americans, who once called the region home, largely protected it from major storms for centuries. Part of this legend are the many mounds built by the Tocobagan tribe in what is now Pinellas County, which some believe were intended as guards against invaders, including hurricanes.
“It’s almost like a myth becoming history,” said Farias. “In time it will come true.”
It seems that Hurricane Ian will put this legend to the test in the coming days.
(Copyright (c) 2022 Sunbeam Television. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed.)
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