Hurricane experts from the Weather Channel have ranked Tampa the most vulnerable and overdue city for a hurricane in the United States.
The list is based at least in part on scientific measures like potential for storm surges and population size.
Millions of people from north of the city to Sarasota might need to evacuate if a Category 5 hurricane approached, according the experts behind the ranking — the Weather Channel's senior meteorologist, Stu Ostro, and hurricane specialist Michael Lowry. They estimate it might take 68 hours to clear out residents at risk in the metropolitan area.
Ostro and Lowry could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but local emergency management officials said there are lessons to take from the list.
In Hillsborough, about 400,000 people might need to evacuate in a worst-case scenario, emergency management director Preston Cook said.
Pinellas authorities could advise thousands more people to leave — those who live in mobile homes or areas that would suffer the most damage from a storm surge, emergency management spokesman Tom Iovino said.
The bay area is "exceptionally vulnerable" to a storm surge, he said.
"You could see in Tampa Bay, storm surge totals that would be incredible, 28 to 29 feet" if a storm hit just north of the mouth of the bay, Iovino said.
Even Tropical Storm Debby sent a surge toward Tampa last year when it passed by the area, Cook said.
The other part of the Weather Channel ranking — the concept of being overdue — seems to deal more with superstition than science. It factors in how much time has passed since a city was last hit head-on.
Tampa Bay's last direct strike from a hurricane came in 1921.
But the likelihood of a cyclone in the region does not vary just because a storm has not hit in a while.
"The probabilities of us being impacted don't change," Iovino said.
The long gap between storms can, however, cause residents to approach hurricane season with nonchalance.
"We really do face a challenge of people, they consider that we may never get hit," Iovino said.
Cook said planners "fight against complacency every day."
"We don't want people to be complacent because we haven't had a storm," he said.
Iovino cautioned that "there's nothing other than luck that's working in our favor right now," and all residents should examine evacuation maps and develop hurricane plans now.
Hurricane season began Saturday and will continue through November. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts an active season with the potential for three to six major hurricanes (Category 3 or higher) in the Atlantic.
"We are long overdue for a storm and no ranking can tell us if we're going to get hit," Cook said. "The best thing to do is to be prepared for any eventuality."
Zachary T. Sampson can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Twitter: @zacksampson.