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Do Tampa Bay residents have hurricane amnesia after 5 quiet years?

Airplanes were flipped over by Hurricane Wilma at the North Perry Airport in Hollywood, Fla., in October 2005.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Airplanes were flipped over by Hurricane Wilma at the North Perry Airport in Hollywood, Fla., in October 2005.

Wayne Sallade remembers his tour in the Tampa Bay area five years ago, speaking at various community seminars. He recalls addressing the "survivor's guilt" Tampa Bay residents seemed to feel.

The Charlotte County emergency operations director was often invited to talk about Hurricane Charley, which ravaged his county in August 2004. Charley was supposed to hit Tampa Bay but suddenly and unexpectedly shifted toward Punta Gorda. Three more hurricanes also hit the state that year.

The 2005 season brought Katrina, which hit Florida before striking the Mississippi-Louisiana line. Rita, Dennis and Wilma also hit Florida that year.

Eight hurricanes in two years: Hurricane fear was at an all-time high across the state.

But a lot can change after five hurricane-free years. Sallade, like most Florida emergency managers, worries that communities may suffer from hurricane amnesia. That makes it extra tough to preach the basics of hurricane vigilance — stocking up on food and supplies, keeping all documents safe and up to date and knowing your evacuation plan.

"The place I worry about the most is where you are, Tampa Bay," Sallade said. "I bet you would be hard pressed to find people there who were even alive at the time of the last direct hurricane hit."

That was 89 years ago.

Many Tampa Bay residents seem quick to forget the power outages and fear from near-brushes with Frances, Ivan and Jeanne in 2004, then the horror of the flood waters unleashed when the levees in New Orleans broke after Katrina.

"We already had people complacent that next year," said Holly Wade, a Hillsborough County Emergency Management spokeswoman. "Too many people feel like, 'If it doesn't happen here, if it didn't happen to me, it didn't happen.' That's what makes it very, very difficult every hurricane season."

Pinellas County Emergency Management spokesman Tom Iovino said he has heard every myth and urban legend about why Tampa Bay has been spared from hurricanes for so long, and he has heard every excuse for not planning and buying supplies.

This year could be especially bad because of the economy and weariness from other disasters, like the oil spill. But like other emergency management officials around the state, Iovino is constantly creating ways to spread awareness of hurricane season. He does it through meetings with community centers and through schoolchildren, whom he hopes go home to ask their parents if they're prepared.

Wade said Hillsborough County plans to use Facebook, Twitter and Nixle — a new social networking site for government organizations to communicate — to reach out to the public this year.

County management directors are constantly sharing ideas on how to get their communities to wake up, she said.

"Of the 67 counties in Florida, I can promise you all 67 are having that conversation right now," Wade said. "Inland counties especially, because they feel protected, though Polk County proved that wasn't the case in 2004.'' Three hurricanes struck Polk that year.

Awareness will likely be an ongoing message that officials hope reach Floridians before a hurricane hits their community.

Disaster experts and emergency officials at this year's National Hurricane Conference in Orlando spent hours discussing how to make hurricane preparation a social norm, much like buckling seat belts or wearing sunscreen.

Could they create a fun slogan or campaign? Should they change the language they use?

They kept coming back to the first hurdle: how to get people to pay attention at all.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

Do Tampa Bay residents have hurricane amnesia after 5 quiet years? 05/21/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 21, 2010 6:03am]
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