We're known here in the Tampa Bay area, and not because of our suddenly winning baseball team or the celebrities hobnobbing in our nightclubs. Weather experts single us out because of our vulnerability to hurricanes. The season officially starts Sunday. National Hurricane Center director Bill Read can explain why the shape of Florida's west coast and Tampa Bay leaves us literally open to disaster. Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator R. David Paulison will tell you about the "serious problem with flooding" the area would have should one hit. And that's just the beginning. The bottom line: Even though a hurricane has not hit Tampa Bay area in nearly a century, we live in a danger zone. Here are the reasons why:
Our problem: The floor of the Gulf of Mexico is like a barely tilted shelf that rises gradually to the shore. If a hurricane rages toward land, it will push tons of seawater up that slope. "You get this big force of water coming on shore,'' said Read, of the National Hurricane Center. Water 20 feet or higher could surge into parts of the Tampa Bay area. Beachfront homes would be damaged, but flooding could be even worse in such low-lying areas as Oldsmar and downtown Tampa. Saltwater flooding is a threat even in places like Pinellas Park, where you can't even see the gulf or bay.
Your solution: Know if you are in an evacuation zone and make plans to get out when a storm approaches. Find a friend now who lives on high ground and would be willing to house you (and your family and pets) for a few days. Check your zone online at www.tampabay.com/specials/2008/reports/hurricane-guide/ or contact your county government.
Our problem: When it looked like Hurricane Charley was getting ready to obliterate large sections of the Tampa Bay area in 2004, one St. Pete Beach man said he couldn't possibly leave his low-lying apartment because of his "extensive sword collection that's worth a fortune." These are the words of someone who has never endured a real hurricane. There's evidence that too many of us wait too long to get serious about preparing. By then, it can be too late to find a shelter, buy supplies or even get out of town.
Your solution: At very least, take care of two basic needs, which you can work on today. First, devise an evacuation plan. Second, have enough supplies whether you stay home or with a friend. Buy at least three days of nonperishable food, plus flashlights, batteries, a portable radio and any medicine you normally take. Fill water bottles before the storm comes in. These two basics will probably solve 90 percent of your short-term problems if the Big One hits.
Our problem: More than 2-million people live in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, and they can't all escape on Interstates 75 or 4 at the same time. The nightmare scenario for disaster planners is that many thousands will leave at the same time, clogging bridges, interstates and other highways. In theory, people could be stranded in cars as the storm roars in.
Your solution: If you live in a safe home on high ground, make a plan NOT to evacuate so you won't contribute to traffic. This means you must have a hurricane kit with food, water and medicine for at least three days. If you do need to leave, do so as early as possible. Don't wait until 12 hours before the storm hits. That could be too late.Lack of shelters
Our problem: Finding enough shelters for everyone who might need one won't be easy. According to Florida's 2008 Statewide Emergency Shelter Plan, the Tampa Bay area still needs: 75,340 beds in Pinellas; 41,467 in Hillsborough; 28,428 in Pasco and 115 in Hernando. Officials say Florida will add another 58,930 beds by the end of 2009, bringing the total to nearly 1.03 million beds.
Your solution: Avoid shelters. If at all possible, make other arrangements, such as staying at a friend's house, staying in your own home if it's safe, or getting a hotel. Shelters should be a last resort.
Our problem: Thousands of Tampa Bay residents need extra help because of disabilities, advanced age or a need for medical equipment and special care. The problem will be to make sure this care is available at a time of extreme stress, failing power, and some degree of chaos.
Your solution: If you are disabled or elderly and need help with daily task and have no one to assist you, contact local authorities to see if you can be placed on the special-needs evacuation assistance list. For more information, call these numbers: Pinellas (727) 464-3800, press 1; Hillsborough (813) 272-5900; Pasco (727) 847-8959; Hernando (352) 754-4083; and Citrus County (352) 746-6555.