By: Donna Pistilli Sauer
Picturesque views of the calm, clear waters of Tampa Bay give downtown Tampa one of the most scenic landscapes of any major U.S. city. But the bayside location also puts the city at risk - a target of hurricanes and tropical storms.
Tampa has had several close calls with hurricanes over the past few decades, but the city continues to be "untested in its modern era with a major hurricane," says The Weather Channel Hurricane Expert Dr. Steve Lyons.
At some point that hit will come, Lyons says, and the results could be devastating.
As with any other coastal city, the winds from a major hurricane would cause extensive destruction in Tampa, shattering windows of high rises and demolishing lesser-constructed buildings. But the main threat to Tampa from a major tropical cyclone would be surge and associated flooding.
The waters of Florida's Gulf Coast are increasingly shallow from the peninsula to the panhandle. Those shallow waters allow for a higher surge, which is the rapid rise in water levels as a hurricane approaches land. Its orientation at the mouth of the Tampa Bay puts downtown Tampa at the point of maximum surge potential.
"Tampa has a much bigger storm surge potential than Miami," Lyons says, explaining that if storms of the exact same strength were to hit each city, the water would rise 50 to 70 percent higher in Tampa than it would in Miami.
Consider Hurricane Andrew, which devastated South Florida in 1992. Andrew's surge reached 17 feet in some spots, the highest surge ever recorded on Florida's southeast coast. If an Andrew-like hurricane were to hit Tampa, instead of a 17-foot surge, water level rises smashing into the city could reach 25 to 30 feet.
That rush of water would easily flood the first several floors of the city's office buildings and hotels. The force of the crashing waves would devastate smaller buildings.
"I think that if we had a Category 4 hurricane or higher, we would have such tremendous devastation in Tampa, we would have conditions much worse than Andrew in Miami," says National Weather Service Warning Coordinator Walt Zaleski.
"You'd have a tremendous amount of shredded glass falling from buildings impacting the streets below," he adds. "Many of those buildings would not be able to be used for the everyday work force for days, weeks, maybe even months."
Tampa is a city of nearly one million people, many of whom live on or near the water. Should a major hurricane approach, thousands of people would be forced to evacuate to protect themselves from the wind and rushing water. Many of the evacuation routes, however, would also be in danger of flooding.
"There are only a few roads out," says Lyons, and many of them run over water. The worst case scenario of a 30-foot surge would wash right over those bridges, putting those trying to evacuate in extreme danger.
For that reason, evacuation orders must be issued well in advance of an impending hurricane to allow safe passage over the bridges. A hurricane evacuation study done in December of 1992 estimated evacuation times of 10 to 17 hours for the Tampa metro area, depending on the strength of the hurricane and level of evacuation required.
But where should coastal residents go?
"Five-hundred thousand people can't mathematically leave Pinellas County," says Emergency Manager David Bilodeau. "The other problem is there's no place for 500,000 people to go in Tampa Bay…There are not enough shelter spaces available, hotels, motels. It's just not possible."
So the potential exists for thousands of Tampa residents to drive hundreds of miles on jammed highways to escape a hurricane, which can sometimes be just as dangerous as staying put. If the hurricane should veer off course, it could catch those trying to evacuate while they are stuck on the road, Lyons says.
A much better solution for Tampa residents is to evacuate the beachfront houses for a safe shelter, but one that is close to home. Instead of driving long distances, residents should "find the closest safe location," Lyons says.
Bilodeau suggests finding a structure at least 25 feet above mean sea level, with a reinforced roof and few or no windows.
Even though Tampa residents have been fortunate in recent years and haven't had to utilize their hurricane plans, Bilodeau says, "the most important thing is to make your plan while the sun is shining and before we are being threatened by a hurricane."
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