While watching the unfolding catastrophe Hurricane Michael brought to Panama City, a familiar fear crept back into my mind: What if this thing had come up the mouth of Tampa Bay instead of veering west?
It’s a warning people there need to take seriously.
That in no way minimizes what the people of Panama City and the Panhandle went through and all aid and comfort need to be directed to that area. But if past is prologue, a storm the size and intensity of Michael washing ashore in downtown Tampa or close it would bring unimaginable devastation to the densely populated Tampa Bay area, and I’m not sure that’s something that this area can adequately prepare for.
I think about that every time one of these hurricanes comes up the Gulf coast. A year ago, the Washington Post reported on what will happen when Tampa Bay’s century-long string of luck runs out. A World Bank says Tampa is one of 10 cities on the planet most at risk for utter devastation by a major hurricane.
It almost happened last year with Hurricane Irma, but the meteorological gods gave the area a last-minute break when the storm unexpectedly wobbled ashore at Naples, knocking it down a bit.
And in 2004, Tampa Bay had a bullseye on it from Hurricane Charley which, like Michael, suddenly strengthened from a Category 2 to 4 in the snap of a finger. But just as it seemed the worst-case scenario was about to happen for this area, Charley turned inland at Port Charlotte and left major damage in its wake.
The Tampa Tribune, where I worked then, produced an investigative piece shortly after that with a large, bold headline that read: “We’re Not Ready.”
Experts said then that if Charley had stayed on its course, most of Pinellas County would have experienced catastrophic flooding. Water would have been up to at least the second floor of every downtown office building in Tampa.
Tampa would have been just like New Orleans was a year later when Hurricane Katrina struck, and everyone who lives here understands the warning that one day we won’t get lucky. Of course, I guess – as the good people of Panama City and other parts of the Panhandle learned Wednesday – you can say that about anywhere in the state.
Some parts of Florida’s east coast around St. Augustine are still struggling to recover from Hurricane Matthew in 2016. The same is true from parts of the state that were clobbered by Irma last year.
And now we see the nearly unimaginable force generated by Michael, and how the only defense against a storm of that size to leave. The problem for Panama City is that the hurricane exploded in strength in a short time, leaving residents and visitors little time to get out of the way.
The Red Cross estimated as many as 325,000 people in the evacuation zone did not leave. Maybe it was bravado for some, but it’s also a safe bet that many simply didn’t have the financial resources for a prolonged motel stay. And now many roadways are blocked, widespread power outages could last for weeks, stores are empty and probably couldn’t function anyway – the list of problems goes on.
Now, take that carnage and imagine it in an area of more than 3 million people, with an inadequate road system, major buildup along coastlines and waterways, no way to run and nowhere to hide.
Experts tell us it’s going to happen one day. The Tampa Bay area will be under water.
I hope they’re wrong, but I fear they aren’t.