ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) – It’s been more than a century since a major storm like Hurricane Ian hit the Tampa Bay area, which boomed from a few hundred thousand people in 1921 to more than 3 million today.
Many of these people live in low-lying neighborhoods that are highly susceptible to storm surges and floods that they have rarely experienced before, which some experts say could be exacerbated by the effects of climate change.
The problem facing the region is that storms approaching from the south, such as Hurricane Ian on track, will push massive amounts of water into Tampa’s shallow bay with bulldozers and likely flood homes and businesses. The adjacent Gulf of Mexico is also shallow.
“Strong sustained winds will push a lot of water into the bay and it has nowhere to go, so it just builds up,” said Brian McNoldy, 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 forecasts storm surges in Tampa Bay and surrounding waters 1.5 to 3 meters above normal tides and rainfall of 12 to 25 centimeters due to Hurricane Ian.
“That’s a lot of rain. That’s not going to run out anytime soon,” said Cathie Perkins, director of disaster relief in Pinellas County, where St. Petersburg and Clearwater are located. “This is not a joke. This is a life-threatening storm surge barrier.”
Officials in the area began issuing evacuation orders for much of Tampa Monday, and the St. Petersburg area was soon to follow. The evacuations could affect 300,000 people or more in Hillsborough County alone.
Governor Ron DeSantis noted the region’s vulnerability during a press conference Monday afternoon in Largo, Florida.
“Obviously if you look at the Tampa Bay area, one of the reasons we fear storms is because of the sensitivity of this area and the fragility of this area,” DeSantis said.
The last time a major storm hit Tampa Bay was on October 25, 1921. The hurricane had no official name but is known locally as the Tarpon Springs storm, after the resort town famous for its sponge diving docks and the Greek heritage. came ashore.
That hurricane’s storm surge, estimated at Category 3 with winds up to 207 km/h, was pegged at 11 feet (3.3 meters). At least eight people died and damage was estimated at $5 million at the time.
Now the tourist-friendly region known for its sugar-sand beaches has grown by leaps and bounds, with homes and businesses along the water being the ideal locations – mostly. Hurricane Ian could threaten all that development.
For example, in 1920 the city of Tampa had about 51,000 inhabitants. Today, that number is nearly 395,000. Many of the other cities in the region have experienced similar explosive growth.
A report from Boston-based catastrophe modeling company Karen Clark and Co. concluded in 2015 that Tampa Bay is the most vulnerable place in the US to storm surges from a hurricane and will lose $175 billion in damage. A World Bank study a few years earlier placed Tampa as the seventh most vulnerable city to major storms around the world.
Yet for years, storms seemed to bypass the region somewhat inexplicably. Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist with the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University, noted that since 1851, only one of five hurricanes with a magnitude of Category 3 or greater has struck Tampa Bay.
“In general, cyclones that passed over the Gulf of Mexico tended to pass far north of Tampa,” the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration said in a 1921 storm report.
Also lurking in the waves and wind are the effects of climate change and higher sea levels that scientists say is causing it.
“As a result of global warming, global climate models predict that hurricanes are likely to cause more intense rainfall and an increased risk of coastal flooding due to higher storm surge caused by rising sea levels,” wrote Angela Colbert, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a June report.
McNoldy, the University of Miami researcher, noted that Hurricane Andrew’s storm surge would be 7 inches (17 centimeters) higher today than when that storm pounded south Florida 30 years ago.
“If sea levels rise, the same storm surge will be able to flood more areas because the baseline it’s happening at is higher,” McNoldy said.
Amid all the science, a local legend says that blessings from Native Americans who once called the region their home have largely protected it from major storms for centuries. Part of that legend is 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.
Rui Farias, executive director of the St. Petersburg Museum of History, told the Tampa Bay Times after Hurricane Irma’s near miss in 2017 that many people still believe it.
“It’s almost like a myth becomes history,” Farias said. “As time goes by, it becomes reality.”
It looks like Hurricane Ian will test that legend in the coming days.
Associated Press writer Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee contributed to this story.
Curt Anderson, The Associated Press