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.
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.”
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."
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.”