Irma takes aim at America’s most vulnerable, unprepared city: Tampa

You may think that the most vulnerable city in United States to hurricane is New Orleans, or Houston, or Miami. But studies say Tampa tops them all.

And since the storm track for Hurricane Irma has been slowly shifting toward the west coast of Florida over the past day or so, it appears that Irma has Tampa in its cross-hairs, potentially hitting the city as a Category 3 storm Monday morning.

Unfortunately, Tampa is not merely the most vulnerable city in the country to a hurricane, it appears to be the most unprepared. A July analysis by the Washington Post concluded that “the area is due for a major hurricane, and is not prepared. If a big one scores a direct hit, the damage would likely surpass Katrina.”

Given the severe risk, the good news is that the Irma is not approaching Tampa from the west — that would be a worst-case scenario that could generate storm surge of up to 20 feet. The bad news is that the latest projection by the National Hurricane Center Calls for a storm surge of up to 8 feet, and their own surge map shows parts of the city getting more than 9 feet.


“A severe storm with the right track orientation will cause an enormous buildup of water that will become trapped in the bay and inundate large areas of Tampa and St. Petersburg,” explained a 2015 study by Karen Clark & Co. (KCC), discussed in the Tampa Bay Times. KCC is a company specializing in modeling possible property damage from disasters for the insurance industry.

“Fifty percent of the population lies on ground elevations of less than 10 feet,” the KCC study notes. The Tampa-St. Petersburg area has a population of 2.8 million people.

A 2016 study by CoreLogic, a global property information firm, concluded that more than 90,000 homes would be at risk of flooding from a Category 1 storm with a surge of 4 to 5 feet. More than 1 million people are in the evacuation zone for a storm like Irma.

“If major evacuations are called for, Tampa’s geography makes it almost impossible to get everybody out of town to safer locations,” explained Minnesota Public Radio chief meteorologist Paul Huttner in 2012 when Hurricane Isaac was threatening the city.

But Isaac missed Tampa. In fact, one of the reasons the city is unprepared is that it hasn’t taken a direct hit from even a Category 1 storm since 1946. And the last time a major hurricane hit the area was 1921, when hardly anyone lived there. So in the ensuing decades, the city dedicated billions of dollars to building huge waterfront condos. It even built a hospital on an island in the bay.

Another reason the city is so unprepared, the Washington Post notes, is the pervasive climate science denial among state leaders like Gov. Rick Scott (R). Everyone can see that sea levels are rising, and flooding is becoming more and more common. As Mark Hafen, a University of South Florida expert on urban planning, told the Post, “The bay’s getting higher, and the bay needs to go somewhere else. But there’s nowhere for the water to go.”

But it’s hard to get those who deny climate science to pay attention and spend the money needed to study and plan for rising seas and worsening storms. “We’ve had a really hard time getting buy-in on sea-level rise on this side of the bay,” noted Hafen. “Hillsborough County and Tampa are super conservative. They’re burying their heads in the sand.”

As sea levels rise, the possibility of a worse case scenario — a Category 4 storm approaching from the west pushing water into the bay and generating a 20+ foot storm surge — becomes more and more likely (see below):

Predicted height above ground of the water from a worst-case Category 4 hurricane in the Tampa Bay region, as computed using NOAA's SLOSH storm surge model. Downtown Tampa Bay would be inundated by more than 20 feet of water, and St. Petersburg would become an island, as occurred during the 1848 hurricane. Via Weather Underground.

This is a storm with upwards of $200 billion damage, quite separate from any injuries or fatalities the storm causes. A 2015 study by MIT pointed out that global warming is dramatically increasing the chance of this storm happening by century’s end.

Irma is not a worst-case for Tampa, but it will be devastating nonetheless if it keeps to its current track. It’s time for the region and the state to end their denial and start planning for the inevitable.