At this moment (9 AM ET, Tuesday) Hurricane Ian is still passing over Cuba as a Category 3 storm. As with many strikes on Cuba, we may not get a very good picture of damage there, but in the last day both the path and the power of this storm have altered. It now looks like those living on the west coast of Florida from Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg down to Cape Coral/Fort Meyers are going to get a very good look at what could be a very bad storm.
Except they shouldn’t. Because they should be evacuating. A series of mandatory evacuation orders are now in effect for low-lying homes in the area, and for anyone who lives in a mobile home or RV. If your home is capable of moving, move it now. If not, gather up your things and get out, because a life-threatening storm surge is now a possibility at all locations along Florida’s Gulf Coast. Current storm surge models show a particularly high level of threat in the area immediately north of Fort Meyers, where coastal islands and the Gasparilla Sound (Punta Gorda, Charlotte Harbor, etc.) could see a surge reaching over 10 feet as early as Wednesday afternoon.
By Tuesday afternoon, Ian is expected to grow into a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 140 mph and gusts up to 165 mph. Then models suggest it will slow, hook right, and plow into Florida very near Tampa Bay. While it may lose some of its force before that happens, it’s now likely to reach the areas as a major Category 3 or Category 4 storm carrying high winds, large storm surge, and heavy rains. Landfall is expected early on Thursday morning.
In 2021, a number of storms expected to hit in the Tampa Bay area either turned aside in the last few days of their approach or faded out, leaving the area with much less damage than forecasters had warned. About the only serious storm of the season for the Tampa Bay area came with flooding related to the early Tropical Storm Elsa. A similar thing happened in 2020 when massive storm surges and potential damage were forecast in connection to several late season storms, but the only real punch the area received came from Tropical Storm Eta, which generated a significant storm surge just north of the city.
The last time Tampa Bay took a direct hit from a major hurricane was on Oct. 25, 1921, in a period when such storms were not yet given names. That hurricane, which caused extensive damage and at least eight deaths, is thought to have been a Category 3 storm.
The long period of relative safety has led many Tampa Bay residents to a false sense of complacency. There are theories that the southwest angle of the mouth of the bay and the line of barrier islands are configured in a way that limits possible storm surge. There are even prognosticators who point to a line of mountains in western Cuba as a reason that storms that might otherwise head for this area of Florida’s coast get deflected or weakened.
But there is no real evidence behind either of these theories. The best theory is that Tampa Bay has been the recipient of a lot of lucky dice rolls over the last century, and no one in the area should consider this a guarantee for the future. Contrary to the conventional wisdom of many in the area, Tampa Bay is very shallow, and that’s a recipe for a highly significant surge.
In fact, a 2015 report in the Insurance Journal listed the Tampa Bay area as “the most vulnerable place in the U.S. to storm surge flooding” and suggested that a major storm hitting the area could generated $175 billion in damage. The population of the area has grown hugely since the last major storm struck Tampa Bay, and many low-lying islands and beach areas have become built up with homes and resorts.
Even if you’ve ridden out many storms in the past, please don’t get out your hurricane party glasses. Just get out. Take a break. There’s starting to be some nice early fall color in New England and the upper Midwest. This would be an excellent time to go see it. Heck, just drive over to Kennedy and watch them roll the Artemis rocket back into shelter. Get away from the Gulf Coast.
Maybe this storm will alter course. Maybe it will fizzle. Don’t count on it. Treat the current predictions seriously.
The National Hurricane Center is currently predicting a storm surge in the area around Tampa Bay of between 5 and 10 feet over normal high tide conditions. Rainfall totals between 10 and 15 inches are expected. Surge levels could be just as high, or even higher, in the Port Charlotte area, and may arrive as soon as Wednesday.
The likelihood of a large storm impacting anywhere in Florida has increased in the last few decades and is still going up due to the human-generated climate crisis. While only five Category 5 storms formed between 1981 and 2000, there have been 14 in the last 20 years. For everywhere along the coast, it’s a matter of when, not if.
Note: At this point, it’s been over a week since Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico. Even though that storm was “just” a Category 1 hurricane, a combination of bad timing and bad angle of approach generated some record-setting storm surge, tearing up roads and bridges, flooding homes and businesses, and knocking out water and power across large parts of the island.
On Monday, blackouts lingering from this storm still affected nearly half a million people. That’s down by about 240,000 in the last two days, but it’s still about half a million too many. Local officials are asking President Joe Biden to suspend the Jones Act to allow ships carrying diesel fuel to come to the island, where they can support generators in areas where power may remain out for some time.
My apologies for not following this story closely at the time Fiona was approaching the island, or for giving this the follow-up it deserves. Puerto Rico is the United States.
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