Another week, another worst-case scenario for a major American city.
Today it’s Tampa, which sits about 200 miles up Florida’s Gulf Coast from Key West, where Hurricane Irma made landfall on Sunday morning. After ravaging Cuba and the western Caribbean islands, the most powerful storm to hit the nation since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 claimed its first fatality on the U.S. mainland when a driver slid off a highway in the Florida Keys.* About half of the 1.1 million households in Miami-Dade County have lost power.
But it is the cities of Florida’s left coast—Naples, Fort Myers, Sarasota, and the Tampa Bay area—that now sit in the path of the eyewall, as Irma has shifted towards the western side of earlier forecasts. For those cities, FEMA head Brock Long told Fox News Sunday on Sunday morning, Irma is the “worst-case scenario.”
Karen Clark & Company, the Boston-based risk management firm, concluded in 2015 that the Tampa-St. Petersburg area was the most vulnerable American city to flooding damage, with potential losses of $175 billion from a hundred-year, Category 4 storm with 150 mph winds. Irma was a Category 4 storm on Sunday morning, and was expected to hit Tampa shortly after midnight. [Update, 5:40 p.m.: Irma is now projected to hit Tampa as a Category 1 storm after midnight, coinciding with a minor high tide; massive flooding is still possible and the mayor has declared a curfew in effect from 6 p.m. on.]
Pinellas County, which makes up the western side of the Tampa metro, is Florida’s most densely populated. Hillsborough, which makes up the eastern half, has been one of the fastest-growing areas of the country and is home to more than 10 times as many people today—1.3 million—as it was the last time the region was hit by a major storm, in 1921.
What puts Tampa at risk, according to the KCC report, is the same thing that has made it so attractive: its expansive natural harbor. As Sandy demonstrated in New York, a bay can act like funnels during a big storm event, channeling and amplifying the storm surge. In Tampa, about half the population lives less than ten feet above sea level; none have experienced a severe hurricane there.
The real estate firm CoreLogic has predicted that a Category 5 hurricane could damage 450,000 homes in Tampa. “If we got a Cat 3 coming across Hillsborough Bay, my house is gone,” Mayor Bob Buckhorn told the Tampa Bay Times last summer.
The Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council drafted its own “Catastrophic Plan” in 2010, envisioning a Category 5 “Hurricane Phoenix.” Using modeling from the National Hurricane Center’s SLOSH (Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes), the report forecasted 90,000 destroyed homes across the nine-country metro area. “All three bridges that traverse Tampa Bay and the Courtney Campbell Causeway sustain either structural damage or have their approaches washed away by water and waves,” the report imagined.
Climate change planning in the region has been slow coming, the Washington Post reported in July, hamstrung by conservative leaders at the county and state level who know the economy is dependent on homebuilding. (Florida governor Rick Scott told the Tampa Bay Times in 2010 that he did not “believe” in climate change. He reportedly banned the use of climate science from state projects and reports.)
To make matters worse, the mismatch between federal and local acknowledgement of flood risk has increased. Since Congress decided in 2012 to raise flood insurance premiums to better reflect risk and cost, the Associated Press reports that Florida’s number of flood insurance policies has fallen by 15 percent; only four in ten of the state’s hazard-zone homes are covered, despite requirements that flood plain homes with FHA-backed mortgages buy flood insurance.
That has happened even in regions that have been repeatedly damaged by flooding, like Houston. In Tampa, the risk has been largely abstract. Until now.
*Correction, Sept. 11, 2017: This post initially stated that the driver who died in the Florida Keys was the first U.S. fatality from Hurricane Irma. Irma had already killed at least three people in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The post also misstated the title of the show that FEMA chief Brock Long appeared on.