ST. PETERSBURG — Abby Sallenger conceived one of the Tampa Bay area's crown jewels on a trip to the beach.
In the mid 1980s, the prestigious Atlantic Marine Geology Branch in Woods Hole, Mass., part of the U.S. Geological Survey, needed to move.
St. Petersburg seemed a logical choice, given an increased interest in the future of coastlines, to which more American were migrating.
So after the last day of a conference on beaches at the University of South Florida, Dr. Sallenger and Robert Halley, another USGS oceanographer, trekked out to the Gulf of Mexico to watch the sunset.
"Abby said, 'Boy, wouldn't it be great to have an office here?' " recalled Halley, 65.
In 1988, two years later, the two men opened what is now the St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center. Dr. Sallenger succeeded Halley as its chief scientist for several of the center's key growth years. Today the USGS employs about 100 workers, including more than 40 scientists with advanced degrees. It has proved a major boon to USF's College of Marine Science and helped attract several other oceanographic research institutions to the city.
Dr. Sallenger, an expert on the effects of extreme storms on coastal communities and barrier islands, died Tuesday at his home of natural causes, his family said. He was 63.
In recent years, Dr. Sallenger led the national USGS team that investigates coastal erosion. Colleagues credit him with developing the protocols used by the USGS in assessing the damage by Hurricane Sandy and many other storms.
While the USGS decided to keep its Massachusetts bureau intact, scientists nonetheless decided to open an additional research center in St. Petersburg.
"It was really the first step in making marine science at USF a major player," said Al Hine, a geological oceanographer at USF's College of Marine Science.
"From my standpoint, this is one of the best investments the city has ever made," said Peter Betzer, who then chaired USF's department of marine science and is now president of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership.
Dr. Sallenger's family said he was a devoted father who took time out to attend his children's sports events and often surprised them with his wit.
Asbury Sallenger was born in Annapolis, Md., the son of a Navy captain. At age 12, while staying at his family's summer house on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, he witnessed the 1962 Ash Wednesday storm, one of the worst to hit the mid-Atlantic region.
"The waves came over the dunes and pushed the dunes into the houses and filled them to the roof with sand," he later told the New York Times.
In college, he was a starting offensive lineman for the University of Virginia Cavaliers football team and was scouted by the Dallas Cowboys, his sister said, but he ultimately stayed at the university to earn a doctorate.
He joined the USGS in 1974. Though stationed at a center near San Francisco, the work took him all over the world.
The St. Petersburg center started in a former podiatry office, then moved to into 400 Sixth Ave. S when the city gave the center the former Studebaker building.
When USF opened a $2.3 million expansion for the USGS center, in 1995, a tax watch group called the move a "turkey." But USF president Betty Castor and others stood behind it.
Dr. Sallenger used the Florida location to get to storms with names like Ivan, Charley and Katrina, using laser-assisted aerial mapping to survey the loss of barrier islands, beaches and dunes. He was passionate about explaining the long-term effects of rising sea levels, and in 2007 won a lifetime achievement award presented to "a USGS scientist who demonstrates great skill in presenting complex concepts to nontechnical audiences."
In 2009, Dr. Sallenger combined four decades of study with storytelling in a popular book. Island in a Storm documents an 1856 storm that devastated Isle Derniere on the Louisiana coast. "I was looking for a story that would tell how land is moving, how the land is changing," he said at the time.
Dr. Sallenger was working on reports for the Intergovenmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. Global Change Research program, and had recently returned from a climate change conference in Spain.
Colleagues said Dr. Sallenger's timely contributions to science have saved countless lives. "He could see that coastal issues were going to be a very important new thing," Halley said. "And he was absolutely right."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.