Hurricane Ian looms near Tampa. Here’s what a direct hurricane hit would mean.


On Tuesday morning, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis gave a press conference urging his whole state to prepare for the effects of Hurricane Ian. He warned residents in no uncertain terms that, “in some areas there will be catastrophic flooding and life-threatening storm surge” — note the lack of hedging phrases such as “likely” or “expected to.”

Forecasts say the storm will likely make landfall south of Tampa near Fort Myers on Wednesday, and if those forecasts are correct, it will be a devastating Category 4 hurricane when it does so.

This might be the worst storm to hit Tampa in almost exactly a century. The Tampa Bay Hurricane of 1921 killed eight people, but that storm has passed out of living memory.

“People in Tampa Bay tend to heed warnings,” Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council told Mashable, but he hastened to add that events like this are “infrequent.”

Sullivan said his organization — a type of government entity unique to Florida — is preparing for a major disaster. “We closed our office and buttoned it up. We’re bracing for impact, and anticipating power outages,” he said. But he and his colleagues have been trying to get the word out about the potential for a major storm since at least 2010. Its 2020 video on the topic, a glossy what-if documentary about a category 5 storm called Hurricane Phoenix, contains eerie echoes of the news currently on TV in Tampa:

The horrors depicted in the short film include flooding in downtown Tampa, and the swamping of all the bridges in and out of town, not to mention damage from 200 mile-per-hour winds, which essentially level the city.

“Since we developed that video, we show it on a regular basis,” Sullivan said, explaining that the council does its best to show it to “pretty much any elected official in the Tampa region.” He credits the video and the accompanying written report at least partially with the city of Tampa’s recent project aimed at upgrading its drainage system. Though, with a powerful storm bearing down on the city, the timing on that project isn’t quite perfect. “They’re in the first year of a three-year project,” he told Mashable.

Tampa’s geography means a direct hit would be devastating

The reason for all the attempts at advanced warning is that Tampa isn’t just a coastal city in a hurricane-prone region. It’s a well-established vulnerable spot, with uniquely worrying features. A 2013 study from the World Bank called Tampa the seventh most at-risk city in the world for hurricanes, not simply because its geography makes hurricanes exceptionally likely to make landfall there, but because that likelihood is paired with the potential for an unusual amount of economic devastation. A 2015 report from Boston-based catastrophe modeling company Karen Clark & Co. found that a Katrina-sized flood event in the Tampa area would cause an astonishing $175 billion in damage.

And in terms of creating damaging storm surge, the most ominous possible direction for the city of Tampa: Pushing north into the bay. This allows for the storm’s high winds to force ocean water up and into the city, potentially devastating low-lying neighborhoods perhaps miles inland from the coast. To make this all the more devastating, the Tampa metro area has developed rapidly and recently, with its population blowing past the 3 million mark in 2016.

In another worrying forecast, the storm is expected to slow to a crawl as it makes landfall, which will drag out and amplify the effects of rainfall and storm surge. “The potential is up to 26 inches of rainfall. Should it occur, [Tampa does] not have the capacity to handle that volume of rain,” Sullivan said.

It’s worth noting that in 2017, Hurricane Irma, which devastated communities in the Florida Keys, threatened to clobber Tampa, and provoked evacuations similar to those we’re seeing now. But that storm miraculously made landfall on mainland Florida in a sparsely populated area 50 miles east of Tampa, and stayed mostly on land, meaning it cut a largely (though not entirely) safe path through the state as it weakened.

It’s possible, though unlikely, that Florida could get lucky a second time. But even those hoping for the best should absolutely be preparing for the worst.





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