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As hurricane season approaches, a simple question: Are we due?

“We’re a peninsula on a peninsula. 
You can’t get much more vulnerable than where we are.”
Sally Bishop, Pinellas County emergency management director

“We’re a peninsula on a peninsula. You can’t get much more vulnerable than where we are.” Sally Bishop, Pinellas County emergency management director

The conversation around hurricane season in Tampa Bay sometimes veers into superstition.

We're due, people say. It's only a matter of time.

It's fair to speculate that the bay area, which hasn't had a direct hit since 1921, is bound to get walloped eventually. But experts caution that the chance of a storm making landfall locally is the same each year.

"There's no potential energy that's being stored out in the gulf or the Atlantic," said Byron Koon, the state's emergency management director.

He invoked the example of flipping a coin: Even if you toss heads 10 times in a row, you still have a 50-50 chance at flipping tails on the next attempt.

Just two years ago, the Weather Channel put Tampa atop its list of the "10 Most Vulnerable and Overdue Hurricane Cities." But Michael Lowry, the Weather Channel's hurricane specialist, said that finding was based largely on the region's vulnerability to storm surge if a hurricane hit.

"(Forecasting) can't really tell you with any certainty where a hurricane is going to go before a hurricane starts," Lowry said.

A hurricane has not hit Florida since Wilma in 2005, a nine-season drought that Philip Klotzbach, co-author of Colorado State University's annual hurricane forecast, called unprecedented. Going back to 1851, he said, the longest gap between storms previously had been five years.

The 1921 storm in Tampa killed at least six and caused as much as $10 million in damage. Despite the area's "long string of good luck," Klotzbach said, "there's no way to tell when that's going to end."

"It's not like an earthquake where every year you go without an earthquake on a particular fault line, the pressure builds and the odds go up," he said.

Klotzbach pointed to 20th century New England as an example. The region was hit by a total of six hurricanes in 100 years, but two of them struck within three weeks of each other in 1954.

Tampa Bay has had scares, including Hurricane Charley in 2004, which veered to Punta Gorda farther south at the last minute. Klotzbach said another hurricane just missed the area in 1950.

The Colorado State University forecast for 2015 calls for a total of just three hurricanes. But some prognosticators say landfall is all that matters, and it only takes one storm for a region to be hurt.

David Dilley, a forecaster who lives in Ocala and used to work for the National Weather Service, puts out four-year prediction models based on cycles. He said Tampa Bay is about to hit an active period.

"We haven't had much happen during the past 10 years, but what I'm saying is, next couple of years, things are going to bust open," he said.

Jim Williams, a hobbyist who runs a paving company full time, tries to predict where hurricanes will strike based on historical data. He said residents in southwest Florida, particularly the Port Charlotte area, should look out in 2015.

"Eight percent of the time when you have seasons like we're expecting this year, that area has been hit by main storms," he said. Florida is "a sitting duck, and we just have been very, very lucky."

If a major storm were to hit Tampa Bay, the impact would be catastrophic. With the right conditions, the storm surge might exceed 15 feet.

"We're a peninsula on a peninsula. You can't get much more vulnerable than where we are," said Sally Bishop, Pinellas' emergency management director.

Florida just last year became the third most populous state in the nation. More people are moving to the Sunshine State, and development usually occurs near the shore — right in the path of potential storms. The last time a hurricane hit Florida, the population was 17.8 million. Today, it's 19.9 million.

As hurricane season ramps up, emergency management specialists are fighting complacency and ignorance. They want everyone to know when to evacuate and where to go.

If you want to play the probability game, National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said, there's one sure bet.

"If you're prepared and you're hit by a hurricane, the odds are very good you're going to be a hurricane survivor," he said. "If you don't prepare, you are going to be a hurricane victim."

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.

As hurricane season approaches, a simple question: Are we due? 05/13/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 13, 2015 3:43pm]
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