Marooned in Tampa

I had just performed at Guavaween and I was getting ready to return to classes in New York City when Sandy hit. My weekend visit home turned into a weeklong affair; worse yet, with LaGuardia Airport under several feet of water, I couldn't blame my problems on the airline.

As if I weren't stranded enough, I had no car in Tampa, so I couldn't go anywhere without having to beg someone to act as my chauffeur. So, while I thoroughly reacquainted myself with my dog, mattress and the helplessness of immobile life, I had some time to think. I came to the conclusion that Tampa needs public transportation to help avoid future hurricanes — a strange connection to make, yes, but true nonetheless.

My first few thoughts involved some inevitable comparisons between New York City and Tampa. I missed being able to step outside and have almost anything I could need within a few blocks' distance. In Tampa, I was passive and isolated, stuck in transportation limbo; in New York, I could stimulate the economy anywhere in the city thanks to public transportation.

The next thought involved the irony of the situation. New York was recovering from a massively destructive hurricane while Tampa Bay, in the state that defiantly sticks out into the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico in a way that seems to make it difficult for a hurricane to miss, sat unscathed. I came to Tampa, and Sandy took my place in New York.

As my nature-imposed vacation continued, I heard New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo say that extreme weather events are now the norm, and I saw New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorse President Barack Obama because of climate change. Pundits argued that global warming was to blame for Sandy, while scientists more soberly suggested that rising global temperatures brought on by increased levels of greenhouse gases contributed to the intensity and devastation of the storm.

The funny thing is, New York City has one of the lowest per capita greenhouse gas emissions of any large city, largely because of its population density, mixed land use, and public transportation — all things that reduce the reliance on the automobile, and all things that Tampa, and the Tampa Bay area in general, sorely lack. I couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of it all; the bane of my existence in Tampa, the city's reliance on cars, was partially responsible for the flooding that was keeping me from returning to New York.

As is the case with most absurd humor, I soon came to a grim realization. The scenario could have just as easily played out in reverse. I could have gone to the Northeast, and a major hurricane could have landed in Tampa. It's true, Tampa Bay hasn't had a direct hit since 1921, but that's due to dumb luck, and we can't rely on it to keep devastation away in the future.

Think of it this way — do you have an emergency evacuation plan? If this past summer Tropical Storm Debby had been stronger and the floodwaters on Bayshore higher, would you have been prepared?

Now, think on a larger scale of time. Does Tampa have a plan to reduce its contribution to climate change? Will we do nothing as sea levels rise and hurricanes become more powerful?

If everyone waits on someone else to act, we'll all be waiting for eternity. We need to realize that cities are both the largest part of the problem (with up to 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions coming from urban areas), and, as we saw with Hurricane Sandy, the places that have the most to lose from climate change. Cities are both the villain and the victim; the fact that they can act on their own initiative gives them the potential to be the hero as well.

New York City is trying to shift into the heroic role with its plan. So are many other cities, including some that you might not expect, like Louisville, Ky. Tampa is now taking its first steps in that direction with InVision, Mayor Bob Buckhorn's master plan for downtown Tampa and the surrounding neighborhoods.

If we continue with this trend, perhaps my grandchildren will live in a Tampa where not having a car is a good thing, and that future Tampa will exist in a world where climate change isn't a problem without a solution.

Until then, I'll check the weather before I travel.

Fabio DeSousa, a Tampa native, graduated from Hillsborough High School. He is a student at Columbia University in New York. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Marooned in Tampa 12/11/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 11, 2012 2:10pm]

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