In the news, 100% of the content now seems to be about The Virus. Meanwhile, hurricane season is approaching and some places are at high disaster risk. Current predictions of the number and intensity of hurricanes are meaningless because the impact of a hurricane depends upon the exact place where it makes landfall.
In the Atlantic Ocean, a typical hurricane generally moves from east to west toward the Caribbean. There, it gains its hurricane label if wind speeds remain steady at 74 mph or higher. Hurricanes that make it into the Gulf of Mexico have been seen to reverse course a number of times. In 1985, Elena did such a zig-zag maneuver but struck the coast near Cedar Key, Florida, well north of the most vulnerable area. With 2.8 million inhabitants, the Tampa Bay region presents a much greater risk than the 700-resident town of Cedar Key.
Currently, St. Petersburg on the Bay’s western shore is dealing with growing urban development by allowing more of it. In an effort to project a sense of sustainability, “new multi-family units in high hazard areas [must] be elevated structures, built at least two feet above the base flood elevation”, as reported by the local paper. Being two feet above the water surface would sound good if the rise of the storm waters were slow, like filling a lake after a new dam is built. But storm surges are violent, and the wind-driven waves that ride on top of the storm surge can sweep homes away quickly, elevated or not. Existing areas like Snell Isle and Eden Island are at 5 feet elevation. Across the bay, Tampa General Hospital is at water’s edge on both sides, located a scant 8 feet above sea level.
The latest hurricane that struck the bay came in October, 1921. Bayshore Boulevard and neighboring areas were hit hard by the floods because the bay narrows there, which raises the incoming flood waves. One might think with 100 years elapsed, Tampa Bay is overdue for another hurricane. But that’s not so. Future occurrences aren’t dependent on previous ones. What makes Tampa Bay a sitting duck is the enormous amount of development that has occurred since the 1990s. Like other disasters, hurricanes can cause fatality counts in the thousands, as we have seen with Katrina in 2005 and Maria in 2017.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.