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Did local Indian mounds save Tampa Bay from Irma's worst? Some say yes

The Tampa Bay area hasn't suffered a direct hit from a hurricane since 1929. Did American Indians who roamed the land centuries ago protect Pinellas with a blessing?

Depends on who you ask, says Rui Farias, who knows a thing or two about local history. When he's not teaching a Florida history class at St. Petersburg High, he works as executive director of the Saint Petersburg Museum of History near the Pier.

The Tocobagans' village capital was where Safety Harbor is today, but their mounds, both sacred and burial, are found from the Gandy Bridge along the peninsula to the Gulf Coast.They either wanted to protect their lands, or "they wanted hurricanes to come here and punish us for Spaniards" who arrived here around the 16th century, Farias said.

HURRICANE IRMA: Find all of our coverage here

He says it's less of a blessing or a curse than it is about the science behind hurricanes. But many still believe the blessing protects us.

"It's almost like when a myth becomes history," Farias said. "As time goes on, it comes true."

At the history museum along the downtown waterfront, he spent the days before Irma's arrival covering Native American artifacts in plastic and moving items into a vault.

"I did everything I could to protect their artifacts," Farias said before Irma came through, letting the Tampa Bay area off the hook by weakening to a storm with less-than-catastrophic winds.

Was it Indians returning the favor?

"I wasn't a believer before, but I am now," Farias said Tuesday as the sun shone over Tampa Bay. "Thank goodness for the Tocobagans is all I have to say."

Lisa Sinatra, an assistant principal at Dixie Hollins High who helped out at the shelter at St. Petersburg High, also put her faith in the legend. A Pinellas resident for 45 years, she was waiting for Irma to make a turn like Hurricane Charley did in 2004. Then, early Monday morning, Irma's sudden downgrade to a Category 2 reaffirmed her belief.

"You see?" she said. "I told you about that blessing."

On the western edge of St. Petersburg, Doris and Erik Anderson live on Sacred Lands.

Hundreds of years before them, so did the Tocobagan tribe, which built mounds along the Pinellas peninsula. Maybe for garbage, maybe to bury their own, or maybe to protect themselves from an intruder — another tribe, Spanish conquerors or a natural disaster like Hurricane Irma.

There's a 23-foot mound here at Sacred Lands in the Jungle Prada neighborhood, south of Park Street N and 22nd Avenue N. The Anderson family has owned the property since the 1940s and lived in a private residence, 13-feet above sea level behind the mound, since 1953. On Sundays, the park opens for public tours.

Some people believe American Indians here blessed the land to protect from hurricanes. Doris Anderson isn't necessarily one of them.

"I don't know if I believe that legend," she said. "I do believe in the power of God."

Despite being in an evacuation zone, the family went into Hurricane Irma planning to stay at their home, though their Plan B was to flee to their son's house a mile away.

"I feel like being here," Anderson said. "It's sort of protected here."