Tampa and the neighboring areas have been advised to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Ian.

The Tampa Bay region, which grew from a few hundred thousand residents in 1921 to more than 3 million today, has not experienced a big hurricane of the magnitude of Hurricane Ian in more than a century.

Tampa and the neighboring areas have been advised to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Ian.
Image Credit : accuweather

Many of these people live in low-lying neighborhoods that are particularly vulnerable to storm surge and flooding, which some experts believe will be exacerbated by the effects of climate change.

The issue confronting the region is that hurricanes arriving from the south, such as Hurricane Ian, bulldoze massive amounts of water into the shallow Tampa Bay, inundating houses and businesses. The nearby Gulf of Mexico is shallow as well.

According to Brian McNoldy, a senior research associate at the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric and Earth Science at the University of Miami, "strong persistent winds will drive a lot of water into the bay and there's nowhere for it to go, so it simply piles up." Tampa Bay's orientation makes it particularly vulnerable to surges.

On Monday, local authorities in the area started issuing evacuation orders for a sizable portion of Tampa and the adjacent towns. At least 300,000 individuals in Hillsborough County alone might be impacted by the evacuations.

Hurricane Ian is expected to generate a storm surge of between 5 and 10 feet over normal tide levels in Tampa Bay and the adjacent waterways, as well as between 10 and 15 inches (12 and 25 cm) of rainfall.

"That much rain is a lot. That won't evaporate immediately, "said Cathie Perkins, director of emergency management for Pinellas County, which includes St. Petersburg and Clearwater. "It is not a joke. Storm surge like this is dangerous to life."

In a press conference held in Largo, Florida on Monday afternoon, Governor Ron DeSantis mentioned the area's susceptibility.

"It's obvious when you look at the Tampa Bay region that one of the reasons we fear hurricanes is because this area is sensitive and fragile," DeSantis said.

On October 25, 1921, Tampa Bay was last affected by a significant storm. Although it had no official name, the hurricane is often referred to as the Tarpon Springs storm since it made landfall near the seaside community famous for its sponge-diving docks and Greek heritage.

The Category 3 hurricane with gusts of up to 129 mph was projected to have a storm surge of 11 feet. At the time, there were at least eight fatalities and $5 million in damage.

The area that attracts visitors and is famed for its sugar-sand beaches has expanded rapidly in recent years, with residences and businesses along the ocean often being in the best places. All of that growth may be at danger from Hurricane Ian.

As an illustration, in 1920 there were around 51,000 people living in Tampa. Currently, the figure is close to 395,000. A large number of the other cities in the area have also grown rapidly.

Tampa Bay is the most susceptible area in the United States to storm surge flooding from a hurricane, according to a research by the Boston-based catastrophe modeling company Karen Clark and Co. in 2015, and it could sustain $175 billion in damage. A few years before, a World Bank study ranked Tampa as the seventh-most hurricane-prone city worldwide.

Yet for many years, storms seemed to mysteriously avoid the area. According to Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist in Colorado State University's Department of Atmospheric Science, only one of five storms of a Category 3 or higher intensity has hit Tampa Bay since 1851.

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration noted in a study on the storm in 1921 that "cyclones travelling across the Gulf of Mexico had a propensity to pass well north of Tampa."

The effects of climate change and the increasing sea levels it is allegedly creating are also hiding in the waves and wind.

A scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory named Angela Colbert said in a research published in June that storms will likely result in more intense rainfall and have a higher risk of coastal flooding due to higher storm surge brought on by rising seas as a result of global warming.

The storm surge from Hurricane Andrew would be 7 inches greater now than it was when the hurricane hit South Florida thirty years ago, according to McNoldy, a researcher at the University of Miami.

Because of the higher baseline, the same storm surge will be able to flood more locations as sea levels rise, according to McNoldy.

Despite all the scientific evidence, local lore holds that the area has been mostly shielded from significant storms for generations thanks to the blessings of the Native Americans who originally called the area home. The several mounds the Tocobagan tribe constructed in what is now Pinellas County, some of which some think were designed to serve as guards against invaders like storms, are a part of that narrative.

After Hurricane Irma's close call in 2017, Rui Farias, executive director of the St. Petersburg Museum of History, told the Tampa Bay Times that many people still hold this belief.

Farias compared it to the moment when a myth turns into history. "It becomes true as time passes."

It looks that myth will be put to the test in the coming days by Hurricane Ian.

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