If you live in the Tampa Bay area, check your hurricane evacuation map. You might be among the tens of thousands of families who suddenly find themselves in a more vulnerable zone.
The changes are the result of new storm surge models by the National Hurricane Center in Miami. That data, collected by a plane affixed with new topography sensors, showed considerable differences in storm surge risk in Florida's coastal communities.
So new evacuation maps are being drawn, starting with the Tampa Bay area.
Local emergency managers are scrambling to update their maps and spread the word to residents before hurricane season begins June 1.
"First, we had to get over our shock," said Betti Johnson, who runs emergency management for the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, which distributed the data to local governments. "And then we had to look closely at what was modeled and what the impacts would be."
They are significant.
In Pinellas County, 73,193 of 316,425 parcels changed zones. Of those, 54,332 shifted to more vulnerable zones, such as B to A. A large part of the Azalea neighborhood, for example, went from being in a nonevacuation zone to level E.
It's unclear exactly how many people are affected by the changes because the number reflects parcels, not individual households, and includes houses, vacant land, apartment buildings, condominiums and commercial property.
"The key thing people need to understand is, this is to improve safety," said Pinellas emergency management spokesman Tom Iovino. "We don't want to be in a situation where we're under-warning people."
In Hillsborough, more than 15,000 parcels changed to lower zones while almost 50,000 moved to more vulnerable zones.
"There are a couple areas in South Tampa where there were these islands of like five or six people who were in nonevacuation zones surrounded by evacuation zones," said Hillsborough emergency management spokeswoman Holly Wade. "Everything in our gut told us that those people are not going to be okay if they are surrounded by surge. So we moved them to an evacuation zone."
Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties could not immediately provide numbers on how many residents or parcels are affected by the new data. Those counties are still updating maps and getting final approval to issue the new zones.
Other parts of the state and the country eventually will be affected by the new data, but it's a work in progress, said National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen.
Johnson of the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council estimated 200,000 people from Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Manatee counties will shift to different zones. That's based on population numbers from 2006, when the last evacuation maps were issued.
The new zones do not affect property insurance rates, emergency managers stressed. Evacuation levels pertain to storm surge from hurricanes and have nothing to do with flood zones and flood insurance. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Flood Insurance program determine what land falls within flood zones.
Residents looking at the maps might notice another change. The evacuation colors are being changed to reflect more appropriate warning sign colors. For example, the Level A zone — the lowest-lying area and the first to evacuate — used to be a soft purple. Now it's red.
Emily Nipps can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8452.