ST. PETERSBURG — When hurricanes hit, it's often the water that kills.
So the National Hurricane Center is making it easier for people to learn if a hurricane is likely to cause seawater to surge into their homes. They soon will be able to find out at the Web site www.hurricanes.gov.
"If you have a Category 3 coming in, you can figure out, 'Am I at risk?' " said the center's director, Bill Read, who is in St. Petersburg to for a federal hurricane conference.
For example, if your house is at 10 feet above sea level, you'd probably want to evacuate from an incoming storm that threatens to raise seas 15 feet above sea level. On the other hand, if your house sits at 20 feet above sea level, you might decide to stay put during that storm, depending on local recommendations.
In a worst-case storm in the Tampa Bay area, swelling, unstoppable seas could rise more than 20 feet above low-lying parts of St. Petersburg, Tampa or Oldsmar.
A hurricane that crosses the Gulf of Mexico would push so much water inland that it would have no place to go but up and over the shore, sloshing over wide stretches of the region, destroying buildings, flooding homes, and likely trapping and killing some victims caught in the surge.
The first version of the new storm surge tool will be available later this year. It won't be terribly precise, and will assume people know the elevation of their homes. (Homeowners can find that information on their property survey.)
Read said he hopes to improve the tool in the future, possibly by using Google Earth or a similar technology that would allow people to type in their address to learn the storm surge danger. But that's a few years off, he said.
This week's Interdepartmental Hurricane Conference brings together federal officials from various agencies who are reviewing last year's hurricane season and discussing ways to prepare for the next one. Among Monday's topics: unmanned drones that can fly into tropical storms, without risking human lives, like the Hurricane Hunter aircraft that fly from such locations as Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232.