Democracy Dies in Darkness

Health Science

Tampa Bay’s escape from Irma was more than luck, some say.

By Darryl Fears

September 16, 2017 at 7:00 AM

A couple walk their dogs on Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa before Hurricane Irma arrived. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

TAMPA — When the wind stopped howling outside the house where Raquel Hernandez rode out Hurricane Irma with her frail grandmother, she calmly stepped out a side door, grabbed a small broom, and swept leaves off the driveway.

Others were surprised the storm hadn't flushed the city away, as many experts predicted, but not Hernandez. As she swept, she recalled what an elderly friend told her when she arrived from New York 15 years ago: Tampa Bay was protected from storms. A Native American tribe blessed the area long ago to protect ancient burial grounds.

"We were spared," Hernandez said. "This was nothing."

Tampa Bay is one of the most vulnerable metropolitan areas in the world to a major hurricane. How did it manage to avoid another monster storm that seemed destined to strike it? Many residents here have turned to myth and junk science to explain a near-century of good fortune.

As cities to the south struggled with massive damage from winds and flooding, Tampa Bay contended primarily with power outages that lasted a few days. Its residents expressed sympathy for Irma's victims while speaking confidently about their "perfect place," their "sanctuary" and their "sweet spot" that hasn't been struck by a hurricane as powerful as a Category 3 since 1921.

NAPLES, FL - SEPTEMBER 09: Jordan Alvarez hugs his mother Katie as they stand on the beach in Naples before the arrival of Hurricane Irma arrives into Southwest Florida on September 9, 2017 in Naples, Florida. The Naples area could begin to feel hurricane-force winds from Irma by 11 a.m. Sunday and experience wind gusts over 100 mph from Sunday through Monday. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
MIAMI BEACH, FL - SEPTEMBER 09: Police patrol along Ocean drive as the city starts to feel the affects of approaching Hurricane Irma on September 9, 2017 in Miami Beach, Florida. Current tracks for Hurricane Irma shows that it will hit Florida's west coast later this weekend. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 09: The skyline is seen as the outerbands of Hurricane Irma start to reach Florida on September 9, 2017 in Miami, Florida. Florida is in the path of the Hurricane which may come ashore at category 4. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
DAYTONA BEACH, FL - SEPTEMBER 09: Caleb Rich and his wife Rachel Rich put metal shutters over windows on their home ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Irma September 9, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida. Governor Rick Scott has ordered the mandatory evacuation of millions of people from the southern part of the state ahead of the unprecedented storm. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
DAYTONA BEACH, FL - SEPTEMBER 09: Wood storm shutters bear the names of past hurricanes ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Irma September 9, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida. Governor Rick Scott has ordered the mandatory evacuation of millions of people from the southern part of the state ahead of the unprecedented storm. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Flamingos take refuge in a shelter ahead of the downfall of Hurricane Irma at the zoo in Miami, Florida, U.S. September 9, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
A woman buys wine across from the empty water shelf in a supermarket in Riverview, Florida on September 9, 2017. Hurricane Irma weakened slightly to a Category 4 storm early Saturday, according to the US National Hurricane Center, after making landfall hours earlier in Cuba with maximum-strength Category 5 winds. / AFP PHOTO / Nicholas KammNICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
HOLLYWOOD BEACH, FL - SEPTEMBER 9: Jawad Muhammad collects sand bags from the beach to protect his home as Hurricane Irma approaches the Florida coast on September 9, 2017 in Hollywood Beach, Fl. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
HOLLYWOOD BEACH, FL - SEPTEMBER 9: A lone swimmer braves the waves as Hurricane Irma approaches the Florida coast on September 9, 2017 in Hollywood Beach, Fl. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
HOLLYWOOD BEACH, FL - SEPTEMBER 9: Stan Cohen and his grandson Cooper Guitierez, 7, play on the lifeguard stand as Hurricane Irma approaches the Florida coast on September 9, 2017 in Hollywood Beach, Fl. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
HOLLYWOOD BEACH, FL - SEPTEMBER 9: A flip flop washes ashore as Hurricane Irma approaches the Florida coast on September 9, 2017 in Hollywood Beach, Fl. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 09: People carry belongings as they make their way to a shelter on the campus of Florida International University as outer bands of Hurricane Irma begin to hit the area on Saturday September 09, 2017 in Miami, FL. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 09: Dishes are seen outside the National Hurricane Center as Hurricane Irma closes in on Saturday September 09, 2017 in Miami, FL. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Departing passengers form a long queue to check in at Orlando International Airport ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Irma making landfall, in Florida, U.S. September 9, 2017. REUTERS/Gregg Newton
Jesus Suarez, left, 22, helps his father in law Oscar Santos, right, cover the windows of his truck as they prepare for Hurricane Irma, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017 in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Jennifer Nelson, senior keeper at Zoo Miami, leads a cheetah named Koda to a hurricane resistant structure within the zoo, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017 in Miami. Though most animals will reman in their secure structures, Koda and his brother Diesel and some birds will ride out the storm in temporary housing. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
A car rides in the shoulder to pass other cars in evacuation traffic on I-75 N, near Brooksville, Fla., in advance of Hurricane Irma, Saturday, Sept, 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
FT LAUDERDALE - SEPTEMBER 9: Davis Bohl helps his wife Cathi off this oversized chair in Ft Lauderdale, FL, September 9, 2017 as Hurricane Irma arrives in the area.(Photo by Andrew Innerarity/For The Washington Post)
MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 09: Plastic over a mailbox blows in the wind as the outer bands of Hurricane Irma arrive on Saturday September 09, 2017 in Miami, FL. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
NAPLES, FL - SEPTEMBER 9: People arrive at a shelter at Calusa Park Elementary School ahead of Hurricane Irma in Naples, Fla. on Saturday, Sept 09, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
KEY WEST, FLA-SEPTEMBER 9, 2017- Tati Roberts of Key West, Fla., retreats from the Higgs Beach pier Saturday, September 9, 2017. Tropical storm force winds from Hurricane Irma began hitting the Lower Florida Keys around 2 p.m. with a forecasted landfall late Saturday night as a category 4 storm. (Rob O'Neal For The Washington Post )
ESTERO, FL -SEP 09: Virginia Malisheski (of Estero, Florida) had to be transported by an ambulance crew who stabilized her (from leg pain and exhaustion) before they tried to get her into the shelter. -The Germain Arena in Estero, Florida became a shelter for storm refugees today. By late afternoon it was filled to capacity with thousands of mostly locals fleeing Hurricane Irma which is expected to hit this area (near the Naples-Fort Myers area) hard. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
ESTERO, FL -SEP 09: Tired families wait in the outer area (as others wait in line) of the Germain Arena for a shelter spot. -The Germain Arena in Estero, Florida became a shelter for storm refugees today. By late afternoon it was filled to capacity with thousands of mostly locals fleeing Hurricane Irma which is expected to hit this area (near the Naples-Fort Myers area) hard. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
ESTERO, FL -SEP 09: C.J. Jones and her dog Little Bit are tired after hours in line hoping to find a shelter spot in the Germain Arena. She opted for the shelter because, "I live in a mobile home so I don't think there's much of a chance I'll have anything to go back to." -The Germain Arena in Estero, Florida became a shelter for storm refugees today. By late afternoon it was filled to capacity with thousands of mostly locals fleeing Hurricane Irma which is expected to hit this area (near the Naples-Fort Myers area) hard. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 09: Acting Deputy Director Mark DeMaria prepares to discuss Hurricane Irma on a live broadcast at the National Hurricane Center on Saturday September 09, 2017 in Miami, FL. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Miami Beach, FL - SEPTEMBER 08: People are seen on the beach before Hurricane Irma hits on Friday September 08, 2017 in Miami Beach, FL. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
TOPSHOT - Rough surf churned up buy the approaching hurricane damage the docks at Whale harbour in the Florida Keys as winds and rain from the outer bands of Hurricane Irma arrive in Islamorada, Florida on September 9, 2017. The number of people in the US state of Florida under orders to evacuate in the face of approaching Hurricane Irma has climbed to 6.3 million, authorities said. / AFP PHOTO / Gaston De CardenasGASTON DE CARDENAS/AFP/Getty Images
MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 10: A man stands in front of screens displaying Hurricane Irma as emergency agencies monitor the hurricane at the Miami-Dade County Emergency Operations Center on Sunday September 10, 2017 in Miami, FL. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
The winds and sea are whipped up off of the Rickenbacker Causeway as two people cross the street in Miami as Hurricane Irma approaches on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. ( Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)
People stand in line for breakfast in the disaster shelter at Riverview High School in Sarasota, Fla. on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, in advance of Hurricane Irma. The full shelter is closed to new evacuees. (Mike Lang/Sarasota Herald-Tribune via AP)
Local fisherman P.J. Pike points to the normal low tide in Hurricane Harbor, as Hurricane Irma approaches Fort Myers Beach, Florida, U.S., September 10, 2017. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston
Water rises up to a sidewalk by the Miami river as Hurricane Irma arrives at south Florida, in downtown Miami, Florida, U.S., September 10, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
ESTERO, FL -SEP 10: A homeowner in Bonita Springs makes a plea to Hurricane Irma. -A Sunday morning tour of the area around Bonita Springs and Estero, Florida revealed winds and rain that were beginning to be strengthened to Hurricane force quality. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
FT LAUDERDALE - SEPTEMBER 10: Clay Pace (L) and William Williams (R) take a break from this bicycle ride near downtown Ft. Lauderdale FL September 10, 2017 as Hurricane Irma's wind and rain take effect. (Photo by Andrew Innerarity/For The Washington Post)
NAPLES, FL - SEPTEMBER 10: Cory and his daughter Corrie Salmon walk out onto Vanderbilt Beach as Hurricane Irma sucks the tide out and arrives in Naples, Fla. on Sunday, Sept 10, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
BONITA SPRINGS, FL - SEPTEMBER 10: Flood waters begin to rise in neighborhoods as Hurricane Irma arrives in Bonita Springs, Fla. on Sunday, Sept 10, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
ESTERO, FL -SEP 10: Strong rain and street flooding made for moments of low visibility while driving as Hurricane Irma began to gain strength midday Sunday in Estero, Florida. -A Sunday morning tour of the area around Bonita Springs and Estero, Florida revealed winds and rain that were beginning to be strengthened to Hurricane force quality. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 10: Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez gives an informational update on Hurricane Irma at the Miami-Dade County Emergency Operations Center on Sunday September 10, 2017 in Miami, FL. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
ESTERO, FL -SEP 10: Members of the Martinez family (there were 10 members in 2 autos) run in strong wind and rain to get inside the Germain Arena to take shelter. The extended family had tried to stay in their homes in Bonita Springs but it began to flood and they fled to the shelter late morning today. -A Sunday morning tour of the area around Bonita Springs and Estero, Florida revealed winds and rain that were beginning to be strengthened to Hurricane force quality. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
ESTERO, FL -SEP 09: Dotty Brown (age 90) looks up as the rain and stronger winds began to blow in her face and be more noticaeble as she waited to get into the Germain Arena for shelter. She resorted to using a bathing suit top to cover her head. She lives near the water and said that she didn't want to take chances so she came to the shelter. -The Germain Arena in Estero, Florida became a shelter for storm refugees today. By late afternoon it was filled to capacity with thousands of mostly locals fleeing Hurricane Irma which is expected to hit this area (near the Naples-Fort Myers area) hard. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
An American flag is torn as Hurricane Irma passes through Naples, Fla., Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Javier Garcia, right, and his wife Marissa Soto sit with their neighbor's dog Ilito as they ride out Hurricane Irma in a shelter in Naples, Fla., Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A rough surf surrounds Boynton Beach inlet in Boynton Beach, Fla. (Jim Rassol/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP) .
HOLLYWOOD, FL - SEPTEMBER 10: A blown over gas pump is seen as Hurricane Irma passes through on September 10, 2017 in Hollywood, Fl. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Destroyed roofs at a residential areas are seen as Hurricane Irma passes south Florida, in Miami, U.S. September 10, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
A local resident walks across a flooded street in downtown Miami as Hurricane Irma arrives at south Florida, U.S. September 10, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 10: Kyle Nisbet tries to help pull the car of two stranded motorists out of a flooded street after they got stuck as Hurricane Irma hits the area on Sunday September 10, 2017 in Miami, FL. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 10: Mia Herman has an acquitance take a photo of her sitting on a fire hydrant on a flooded street as Hurricane Irma hits the area on Sunday September 10, 2017 in Miami, FL. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
NAPLES, FL - SEPTEMBER 10: People watch wind blowing trees as Hurricane Irma arrives from the Naples Daily News offices in Naples, Fla. on Sunday, Sept 10, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
HOLLYWOOD, FL - SEPTEMBER 10: A downed utility pole is seen as Hurricane Irma passes through on September 10, 2017 in Hollywood, Fl. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
ESTERO, FL -SEP 10: A Subway sandwich shop sign is submerged (foreground) and a Publix grocery story sign is badly damaged in Estero, Florida after Hurricane Irma came through with the lead band of strength (photo taken during a lull as the eye had just passed). -A Sunday tour of the area around Bonita Springs and Estero, Florida revealed that winds and rain from Hurricane Irma did some some flooding and property damage. Photos were taken during a lull in the harsh wind as the eye passed over. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 10: A crane tower is seen after part of it collapsed from the winds of Hurricane Irma on September 10, 2017 in Miami, Florida. Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm on Sunday, lashing the state with 130 mph winds as it moves up the coast. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
ESTERO, FL -SEP 10: A street sign in Estero, Florida is bent over after Hurricane Irma came through with the lead band of strength (photo taken during a lull as the eye had just passed). -A Sunday tour of the area around Bonita Springs and Estero, Florida revealed that winds and rain from Hurricane Irma did some some flooding and property damage. Photos were taken during a lull in the harsh wind as the eye passed over. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
BONITA SPRINGS, FL - SEPTEMBER 10: Flood waters and storm damage are seen at Palm Lake RV Resort as Hurricane Irma works its way up the west Florida coast in Bonita Springs, Fla. on Sunday, Sept 10, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
BONITA SPRINGS, FL - SEPTEMBER 10: Matthew Tyler stands in his apartment after parts of the roof caved in and flooded as Hurricane Irma works its way up the west Florida coast in downtown Bonita Springs, Fla. on Sunday, Sept 10, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
BONITA SPRINGS, FL - SEPTEMBER 10: Residents walk out into flood waters as Hurricane Irma works its way up the west Florida coast, in downtown Bonita Springs, Fla. on Sunday, Sept 10, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
epa06197958 Ivette Ale walks her dog after the Hurricane Irma?s winds stopped in Miami, Florida, USA, 10 September 2017 (issued 11 September 2017). Many areas are under mandatory evacuation orders as Irma Florida. EPA-EFE/CRISTOBAL HERRERA
FT LAUDERDALE - SEPTEMBER 11: Jennifer Polo and her dogs Maggi (L) and Betsy (R) are back home, waiting for her roommate top open their apartment in Ft. Lauderdale, FL September 11, 2017. Polo said she evacuated north but ran out of gas en route and had to take a taxi back home to face the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. (Photo by Andrew Innerarity/For The Washington Post)
FT LAUDERDALE - SEPTEMBER 11: Beach resident Amela Desanto walks along Ft. Lauderdale Beach Blvd. whose asphalt roadway is covered with sand, to her condominium September 11, 2017 in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. (Photo by Andrew Innerarity/For The Washington Post)
BOWLING GREEN, FL - SEPTEMBER 11: Gonzalo Saldivar and his one year-old son Luke get their first look at the roof that flew off of their home and landed at a nearby intersection during the high winds caused by Hurricane Irma on September 11, 2017 in Bowling Green, Florida. Hurricane Irma made landfall as a Category 4 storm twice in the United States on Sunday after tearing a path across islands in the Caribbean Sea. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
The roof is blown off a house as Rick Freedman checks his neighbor's damage from Hurricane Irma in Marco Island, Fla., Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
BONITA SPRINGS, FL - SEPTEMBER 11: The roof of a gas station is shown damaged by Hurricane Irma winds on September 11, 2017 in Bonita Springs, Florida. Yesterday Hurricane Irma hit Florida's west coast leaving widespread damage and flooding. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 11: A damaged car is seen outside of a hotel following Hurricane Irma on Monday September 11, 2017 in Miami, FL. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Pam trees stand ripped of their fronds in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Marco Island, Fla., Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Kelly McClenthen returns to see the flood damage to her home with her boyfriend Daniel Harrison in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Bonita Springs, Fla., Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
FORT LAUDERDALE, FL - SEPTEMBER 11: Hotel guests are served breakfast by lamplight as the power remains off at the Courtyard by Marriott one day after Hurricane Irma struck the state September 11, 2017 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Irma made landfall as a Category 4 storm twice in the United States on Sunday after tearing a path across islands in the Caribbean Sea. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Evacuees, from left, Dennis Larios, Odaliz Larios, Jennifer Larios and Kevin Renoso, wait to leave the Germain Arena, which was used as an evacuation shelter for Hurricane Irma, which passed through yesterday, in Estero, Fla., Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
NAPLES, FL - SEPTEMBER 11: Ducks swim through a street the morning after Hurricane Irma swept through the area on September 11, 2017 in Naples, Florida. Hurricane Irma made another landfall near Naples yesterday after inundating the Florida Keys. Electricity was out in much of the region with localized flooding. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Partially submerged boats caused by Hurricane Irma sit in the water in a marina in downtown Miami, Florida, September 11, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEBSAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Bethany Kellam walks onto the southend beach of Tybee Island, Ga., Monday, Sept., 11, 2017. The National Weather Service placed most of Georgia under a tropical storm warning. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 11: Freddie Hernandez, left, and Bertin Vialobos, right, use machetes to cut up a fallen tree during clean-up efforts from Hurricane Irma in the Royal Duke Trailer Park on September 11, 2017 in Miami, Fl. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 11: Chris Perez stands near a downed palm tree that landed on his family's home during Hurricane Irma in the Palmetto Bay on Monday September 11, 2017 in Miami, FL. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
IMMOKALEE, FL -SEP 11: Scores of power lines went down as a result of the high Hurricane Irma winds along Corkscrew Road near Estero, Florida. -The town of Immokalee, Florida was hit hard by Hurricane Irma. The community has many farm workers that live in poor living conditions and their homes seemed to be hit the hardest by the storm. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
IMMOKALEE, FL -SEP 11: Adela Silverio tries to put back a window that was blown out from its frame on her trailer during Hurricane Irma. -The town of Immokalee, Florida was hit hard by Hurricane Irma. The community has many farm workers that live in poor living conditions and their homes seemed to be hit the hardest by the storm. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
IMMOKALEE, FL -SEP 11: (L) Mario Valentine sits still stunned in his badly damaged home in Immokalee with his daughter Maria, age 5. At far right is his wife Sandra Guzman. To the left of her is Valentine's sister-in-law Margarita Romero. -The town of Immokalee, Florida was hit hard by Hurricane Irma. The community has many farm workers that live in poor living conditions and their homes seemed to be hit the hardest by the storm. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
IMMOKALEE, FL -SEP 11: Because of power outages, one of the only markets open in Immokalee today experienced long lines. -The town of Immokalee, Florida was hit hard by Hurricane Irma. The community has many farm workers that live in poor living conditions and their homes seemed to be hit the hardest by the storm. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 11: Folks enjoy the beach next to a washed up sailboat from Hurricane Irma at Miami Marine Stadium on September 11, 2017 in Miami, Fl. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
MARCO ISLAND, FL - SEPTEMBER 11: A roof from a nearby building is seen against a funeral home after Hurricane Irma passed in Marco Island, Fla. on Monday, Sept 11, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
MARCO ISLAND, FL - SEPTEMBER 11: An office with the roof missing is seen after Hurricane Irma passed in Marco Island, Fla. on Monday, Sept 11, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
NAPLES, FL - SEPTEMBER 11: A destroyed gas station is seen after Hurricane Irma passes in Naples, Fla. on Monday, Sept 11, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
NAPLES, FL - SEPTEMBER 11: The sun rises at trailer park surrounded by flood waters after Hurricane Irma passed in Naples, Fla. on Monday, Sept 11, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
IMMOKALEE, FL -SEP 11: Cars and trucks drive through flooded streets in downtown Immokalee, Florida today. -The town of Immokalee, Florida was hit hard by Hurricane Irma. The community has many farm workers that live in poor living conditions and their homes seemed to be hit the hardest by the storm. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Photo Gallery: The storm hit Florida with 130 mph winds, striking the Florida Keys and Miami, then moved up the state’s Gulf Coast toward the Tampa Bay area. Floridians start the long process of damage assessment.

Irma's eye was directly in line with Tampa and St. Petersburg — Florida's third- and fourth-largest cities in the state's second-most-populous region — when it left Cuba as a Category 3 hurricane. But after wreaking havoc in the Florida Keys, Naples and Miami, Irma weakened and limped to the east of Tampa Bay as a manageable Category 1.

Leonard McCue, who lives in the flood-prone Old Northeast community on St. Petersburg's coast, said he's never experienced a major hurricane in 40 years. "I'm convinced that geographically we're incapable of being hit with a storm. It just never seems to happen," he said.

Chris Williams, who lives in a newly purchased house off Bonita Bay, had the same thought. "I'm a skeptic. I've lived here 34 years, and I've yet to see a hurricane hit us. I think we're in the perfect spot," he said.

Jeanne Isacco reluctantly evacuated her St. Petersburg home, where a picture window looks out on seabirds plunging for fish in the wide blue bay. "If we get a direct hit from a hurricane coming right at us, we'd be idiots to stay here, but it just hasn't happened," she said. "We've not had an evacuation for nine years before this. We've had several hurricanes come through. We certainly haven't had a catastrophe like the Florida Panhandle and other areas."

Related: [Leave a note for people affected by Harvey and Irma]

In the West Shore area of Tampa, Hernandez only vaguely recalled what her friend said about the Native burial grounds years, completely unaware that at least some of the story is real. Tocobaga Indian mounds have been found between Safety Harbor, their ancestral home, and the Gandy area, a 15-mile stretch along the bay in Pinellas County.

The Tocobagans died out from disease and violence from Spanish conquerors in the 1500s, and it's not clear why the mounds were built, though some were for burials. It's also not clear that they blessed them for protection against hurricanes, but the story has become legend. Two days after the hurricane, the Tampa Bay Times recognized it in a story: "Did local Indian mounds save Tampa Bay from Irma's worst? Some say yes."

Watch more!
Tampa Bay and other parts of the Florida coast were left dry on Sept. 10 after Hurricane Irma pulled its water out to sea. (Reuters)

That belief is not shared by scientists or the area's top politicians. In fact, they see danger in confidence based on superstition, which might make it harder to persuade residents to evacuate when a future monster hurricane approaches.

"I have no doubt that we will get hit," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn (D), who warned as Irma approached that his city was about to get punched in the face. "We're not protected. We're no more vulnerable than anyone else in the state of Florida. We've just had the good fortune of not having been hit, but there's nothing we do or don't do that's going to stop that."

"What we dodged is incredible," St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman (D) said. "All you have to do is look at Naples and the Keys. Naples had wind gusts of 142 miles per hour." The same winds would have wreaked havoc on St. Petersburg. "We're a peninsula on the Florida peninsula. I feel incredibly fortunate for us."

Tampa Bay didn't come out of the storm largely unscathed because of Native American rituals and a Caribbean land configuration that amounts to a blockade against hurricanes, scientists said. Its good fortune was pure chance.

The storm weakened as it raked Cuba. As Irma approached Southwest Florida, where its eye would fall was a guessing game, said Mark Luther, a University of South Florida oceanographer who studied National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data showing Irma's strength and path.

Even with weaker winds, "If it veers to the left of us, we're going to get hammered," Luther said, because the storm would lift the shallow waters of the bay and shove up to 12 feet of water on land. But it stayed well to the east.

"The storm also moved quickly through the area so that the winds didn't have time to push as much water toward the coast and up the bay," Luther said.

The most striking feature of the storm for the Tampa Bay area seemed supernatural: a negative surge that actually sucked water out of the bay, dropping sea level six feet lower than the normal tide and exposing the bottom in some areas.

"We were very lucky to have escaped major damage," Luther said.

Elaine New believes the area might have more going for it than luck. Along with homeowners insurance, flood insurance and an evacuation plan, she says something higher appears to be at work.

"For whatever reason, we're protected. I think people of faith here are praying for our protection," she said. "You would think with Pinellas County being surrounded by water we're at greater risk."

The two mayors didn't completely disavow divine intervention. Buckhorn said the storm prevented him from taking a scheduled trip to Israel, where he hoped to visit the Wailing Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem and insert a prayer: "Please protect us from storms."

That's the same prayer Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), the former governor who now represents St. Petersburg and Pinellas County, inserted in the wall on at least two visits to Israel, Kriseman recalled.

McCue said it was Irma that didn't have a prayer. He was so sure the storm would break apart on the Caribbean islands that he considered staying in his house, about half a football field from the coast.

"I was the one who made him leave," said his wife, Barbara, as they strolled a sidewalk near a crowd watching dolphins frolic.

"I'm a gunslinger," the husband said. "She's the other side of me. I'm especially disappointed with this one," he said of Irma. "We left and came back, and I expected to see debris in my lawn."

Even Tropical Storm Hermine last year left coastal flooding so deep that children were able to freestroke swim in an area usually covered by grass, McCue said.

"They made it seem like it was going to be the end of the world," Hernandez said at her grandmother's house in Tampa. But the power never left.

"It flickered, and that was it," she said. "The Indians helped us again."


Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.

Post Recommends
Outbrain

You obviously love great journalism.

With special savings on our Basic Digital package, you’ll never miss a single story again.

Already a subscriber?

Secure & Encrypted