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Low-lying and flood-prone, Tampa Bay area braces for first major storm in a century

“We’ve been blessed many, many times before, but at some point your luck runs out," one veteran emergency-management official said.

A major hurricane could have a devastating impact on Tampa Bay, one of the most vulnerable areas in the country to rising seas and extreme weather. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post, Photo: Eve Edelheit/The Washington Post)

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

“I’m stressed.”

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

As he spoke about how sea-level rise and a development boom have deepened the risk around Tampa Bay, with so many more properties and people in harm’s way than decades ago, he was busy moving his own vehicles and valuable possessions to higher ground.

“The street in front of my house floods during a bad high tide,” said Luther, who lives near the border of the low-lying neighborhoods of Shore Acres and Venetian Isles, only steps from the waterfront.

Tampa Bay's coming storm: Sea-level rise could cause massive damage if major hurricane hits region

Two years ago, the waters from Tropical Storm Eta crept into his garage and lapped at his door. That relatively mild storm brought several feet of surge, enough to flood hundreds of homes nearby 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 that officials have feared for decades.

The precise size and strength of Ian, as well as what path it ultimately will carve as it ambles up the Gulf of Mexico, remained uncertain on Monday evening. But this much is clear: The Tampa Bay region that lies in its crosshairs, 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 collection of other beach towns and low-lying communities — one of the 10 most at-risk metropolitan areas on the globe.

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

Data shows that the Tampa Bay region has experienced considerable sea-level rise in recent generations. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, has been measuring the sea level at St. Petersburg since 1947, recording a rise of nearly 9 inches since the record began.

In recent years, there are indications that the pace of change is growing. For instance, NOAA data shows that seas have been rising at a pace of nearly 3 millimeters per year at St. Petersburg since 1947 and significantly faster 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 “if adaptation strategies are not implemented, cities throughout the Tampa Bay region will likely experience” a litany of damage and increasing public health threats. Among them: flooding of private homes and public infrastructure, serious beach erosion, deteriorating drinking and wastewater facilities, and a decline in local ecosystems.

Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council years ago simulated a worst-case hurricane to show local leaders what could happen if such a storm steered their way. The fictitious Phoenix hurricane scenario projected that the storm could destroy nearly half a million homes and businesses, millions of residents could require medical attention, and thousands of people could perish.

The group also has estimated that without a coordinated response, “the regional economy may 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].”

What is storm surge, and what causes it during hurricanes?

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

Given that reality, a devastating storm that inundates a large number of structures could force the area to consider where it is safe to rebuild — and where it isn’t. “We haven’t had to make too many of those decisions in this area” in the past, Carnahan said. “It’s something hard that we don’t want to talk about.”

Sally Bishop, who until her retirement in 2018 was the director of Pinellas County Emergency management, also felt uneasy Monday about what the days ahead might bring. She said it wouldn’t take a Category 5 monster to 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 give me any warm fuzzies knowing what we are up against, the way this is shaping up,” Bishop said. “We’ve been blessed many, many times before, but at some point your luck runs out.”

Bishop said she and other local officials worked hard in recent years to harden the area’s defenses and make sure people had reliable places to take shelter during and after storms.

But the reality, she said, is that Pinellas County in particular is bordered on three sides by water and is home to fragile barrier islands, all of which are susceptible to strong winds and storm surges. Meanwhile, if a forceful hurricane were to push into Tampa Bay, the resulting winds and surge could devastate downtown Tampa and surrounding neighborhoods. “There’s no place for all that water to go,” she said.

On top of that, a slow-moving system that dumps massive amounts of rain, which Ian could become, would probably cause massive power outages, overwhelm water systems and create dangerous flooding.

“I’m praying we are not going to see the worst-case scenario we’ve always planned for and worried about,” Bishop said. But, she added, “This is one to pay attention to.”

Local officials were certainly paying attention Monday, and they were pleading with 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 will come in very rapidly, very powerfully. This could push houses off their foundation,” Pinellas County Emergency Management Director Cathie Perkins said at a news conference, imploring residents to evacuate.

“There’s going to be significant debris and damages, roads could be washed out, bridges could be impacted,” she added. “Most high-rise buildings, all of their electrical equipment, elevators, all of that is down on the ground floor. All of that is going to be washed away.”

A major storm could destroy Tampa Bay. People should be more worried.

Perkins said the ground is already saturated, and the storm is slowing in a way that might allow it to sit over the area for days, dumping cataclysmic amounts of rain. She said workers were pumping nearby lakes to create capacity, but she is still expecting destructive amounts of flooding.

“I’m a native. I understand that we’ve seen scares and things before. Sometimes that leads folks to take things for granted,” Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice said. “I would tell you now is not the time to do that. There is no scenario where we will not feel significant impacts.”

As local leaders began to issue evacuation orders for some residents Monday, Debbie Amis and her husband, owners of the Tiki Bar and Grill in Gulfport, were doing all they could to prepare for the possible impacts on their restaurant, which is a stone’s throw from the water.

“We are expecting to be really affected by this,” she said, noting that the property can begin to flood even in a hard rain. 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 reaches us,” Amis said. “We are just keeping our fingers crossed, doing the best that we can.”

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

After moving what he could to higher ground and battening down his home by the bay, he planned to head out for a hotel stay he had reserved near Disney World, where he plans to visit the Epcot theme park and hope for the best for his beautiful and fragile city.

“At least I can drink margarita and listen to my favorite mariachi band while my house blows away,” he said. “There’s nothing else I can do.”

Karin Brulliard and Chris Mooney contributed to this report.

The Atlantic hurricane season

The latest: The 2022 season started out slow, but has rapidly intensified this fall with conditions prime for storms. Fiona brought severe flooding to Puerto Rico before making landfall in Canada, and now we’re tracking Hurricane Ian as it heads for Florida. For the seventh year in a row, hurricane officials expect an above-average season of hurricane activity.

Tips for preparing: We rounded up seven safety tips to help you get ready for hurricanes. Here’s some other guidance about keeping your phone charged and useful in dangerous weather, and what to know about flood insurance.

Understanding climate change: It’s not just you — hurricanes and tropical storms have hit the U.S. more frequently in recent years. And last summer alone, nearly 1 in 3 Americans experienced a weather disaster. Read more about how climate change is fueling severe weather events.

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