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Hurricane Phoenix is Tampa Bay’s devastating worst-case scenario

Phoenix 2.0 is the latest simulation of what would happen if a Category 5 storm were to make landfall here: flooding, destruction and a decade of rebuilding.

It is only a simulation. It’s also the worst-case scenario. One day, it could be reality.

“Hurricane Phoenix” is the hypothetical disaster that would change life in the Tampa Bay area forever.

Imagine a Category 5 storm that drowns South Tampa and turns St. Petersburg into an island. The bridges rendered impassable, the airports unusable and the region’s communities left on their own until help arrives. Power loss in some areas could last months. The beaches would be wiped away, as would tourism. Nearly every small business could die. Recovery would take a decade.

That is the vivid and grim picture painted by Hurricane Phoenix 2.0, the doomsday scenario hurricane simulation conducted by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.

If all that sounds hyperbolic, it’s not. The Tampa Bay area is considered to be one of the most vulnerable population centers to a hurricane strike. The fact that we haven’t been hit by a major hurricane in 99 years is nothing more than luck, experts say.

Related: Hurricane 2020: Seven things to know about a hurricane season like no other
This powerpoint slide is from the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council's Project Phoenix 2.0 presentation, which shows the potential impact of a Category 5 hurricane striking the Tampa Bay region. [ Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council ]

Phoenix 2.0 is the update to the council’s widely-cited 2009 Phoenix simulation, which first explained how devastating a major hurricane could be. It would create millions of tons of rubble and economic damage equivalent to erasing a small nation.

The report arrives at a particularly salient moment: Climatologists predict 2020 may be one of the most active hurricane seasons on record.

But there is no simulating the human toll of such a storm.

It’s impossible to calculate exactly how likely a hurricane like Phoenix is to strike Florida, much less the bay area. Only four Category 5 storms have hit the U.S. mainland in almost 170 years of recorded history. Yet, the National Hurricane Center estimates that statistically the Tampa Bay area should get hit by a Category 3 or higher storm about every three decades.

“You don’t need a 5 to bring Tampa Bay to its knees,” said Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen.

Related: SAFETY CHECK: Use this tool to check for the storm surge and wind impacts on your home or business.
Mexico Beach was in a suspended state of destruction in December 2018, two months after Hurricane Michael made landfall as a Category 5 storm. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]

• • •

One might think the worst-case scenario would have the storm’s eye going right over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and marching into Tampa Bay.

It is not. The worst-case scenario is actually the simulated path of Hurricane Phoenix, approaching from the southwest and making landfall at noon north of Tampa Bay’s mouth.

The planning council’s model targets Indian Rocks Beach — that allows the counterclockwise rotation of the storm to sling Gulf water into the bay, raising the surface waters until they overflow into communities like an unattended bathtub with the faucet left running.

Related: 2020 could be one of the most active hurricane seasons ever, forecasters say

The water would rise so dramatically that most of downtown and South Tampa would be under at least 12 to 15 feet of water, according to a Federal Emergency Management Agency software tool used to estimate losses from potential disasters.

The edges of the South Tampa peninsula, all of Davis and Harbour islands, the Channel District and the banks of the Hillsborough River would see water 21 feet or higher.

Westchase and Oldsmar would be entirely underwater, with surge extending all the way inland to Gunn Highway.

One would be able to swim U.S. 41 from the Manatee River to the Ikea store in Ybor City.

Justin Lyons kayaks back to his home for more belongings in the flood waters from the Alafia River after Hurricane Irma passed by in 2017. [ Times (2017) ]

The swollen Tampa Bay would meet the Gulf of Mexico in Seminole, swallowing much of mid Pinellas County: The Gateway area, Feather Sound, Pinellas Park, Lealman, Kenneth City and east Largo would all be under water, plus everything south of 22nd Avenue S in St. Petersburg. The intersection of Fifth Avenue N and 34th Street would be the center of St. Pete Island.

The highest surge would hit 42 feet.

The beaches as we know them would be gone.

Hurricane Phoenix would have sustained winds of 160 mph, making it a Category 5 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. That is strong enough to destroy framed homes, tear roofs apart and decimate trees and power poles.

Wind gusts would reach the 200 mph mark. The takeoff speed of a Boeing 737 is about 150 mph, meaning a Phoenix-like storm could toss passenger jets aside like toys.

The simulated storm retains Category 5 strength as the eye cuts diagonally across the region, moving northeast through mid-Pinellas, the northwest corner of Hillsborough and central Pasco. By the time it reaches eastern Hernando, it would be a Category 4.

From daybreak until 7 p.m., the entire region — Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas and Manatee counties — would be lashed by hurricane-force winds of at least 74 mph.

If what was left of Mexico Beach after a direct hit by Hurricane Michael in 2018 — the last Category 5 storm to make landfall in Florida — serves as a comparison, Phoenix would destroy almost everything in its path.

Related: Hurricane Michael: What if it had hit Tampa Bay?
The Saffir-Simpson Scale of hurricane damage. [ Times ]

• • •

The simulation, done at the planning council’s behest by disaster planning and preparedness contractor Critical Integrated Solutions, serves dual purposes:

“It’s both a warning about the chilling impacts of a catastrophic storm and a call to action for people to plan and prepare for a severe hurricane today — even if they’ve weathered many hurricane warnings in the past,” said planning council executive director Sean Sullivan in an email to the Times.

Phoenix 2.0 echoes the last major hurricane to make landfall in Tampa Bay: The 1921 Tampa Bay hurricane, which came ashore Oct. 25 in Tarpon Springs, just 20 miles north of Phoenix’s simulated landfall in Indian Rocks Beach.

Also known as the Tarpon Springs hurricane, the Category 3 storm leveled the region with up to 115 mph winds. It’s 11-foot storm surge flooded downtown Tampa and turned St. Petersburg into an island. It killed eight people when the population was just 135,000 or so, and caused $10 million of damage in 1921 dollars.

The road now known as Gulf Boulevard in Indian Rocks Beach was partially washed away when the 1921 Tampa Bay hurricane made landfall in Tarpon Springs, devastating the region. It has been 99 years since Tampa Bay has suffered a direct strike. [ HANDOUT | Heritage Village Archives ]

The region rebuilt, driven by leaders who “sought to cover up the damage caused by the hurricane and rushed to draw attention back to the ‘paradise’ they marketed as Florida,” according to a 2008 article that Nicole Cox wrote for the journal Tampa Bay History.

That notion of paradise persists a century later, strong enough to attract people to the bay area’s endangered beaches, vulnerable coastline and expensive, low-lying neighborhoods, despite the risks.

But risk, said Jeff R. Temple, psychology professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, exists everywhere. Nearly every part of the U.S. faces a worst-case scenario.

“If it’s flooding, mudslides, or earthquakes, or fires, or hurricanes, or tornadoes, it’s really inescapable,” said Temple, whose home, just blocks from the beach, was destroyed by Hurricane Ike in 2008.

After Ike, he said he wouldn’t rebuild in Galveston. But 12 years later, he still lives there. He’s resigned to another hurricane. If he has to, he’ll rebuild again. Humans are like that. “We have to be resilient,” he said, “we have to have short memories.”

But humans are also more reactive than proactive, Temple said. Maybe Phoenix 2.0 can convince Tampa Bay residents to better prepare for their worst-case scenario:

“By putting this (model) out there, people might take it more seriously.”

When Hurricane Michael made landfall in October 2018, the eye of the storm was 300 miles away from downtown Tampa. Yet Bayshore Boulevard along the city's waterfront was still flooded by a swollen and violent Hillsborough Bay. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Tampa Bay Times ]

• • •

Not much has changed since the original Phoenix study. The new simulation predicts 10 percent higher storm surge due to Kelvin waves, large-scale waves that can change ocean height. Sea level rise in the past decade has had a negligible impact.

What has changed is the Tampa Bay area itself.

The estimated 3.1 million residents makes Tampa Bay the 17th largest economy in the U.S. If the bay area were its own country, it would have the 55th largest economy in the world.

Related: Florida has thousands more properties with high flood risk than FEMA says, according to new study

There are also more than 400,000 more people living here compared to 2009. Downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa are more built out and at risk of flooding. Density has also increased. There are more businesses and homes in the way of storm surge, more structures with roofs to fly off. Many of those are now 11 years older.

Of the six counties’ more than 1.35 million buildings, the simulation shows more than 103,679 buildings would be severely damaged or destroyed. That is an increase from the 92,827 buildings lost in the old simulation.

The 2009 storm was estimated to cost the area $233 billion in economic losses and create 41 million tons of physical wreckage.

Eleven years later, the same storm would cost the area in excess of $300 billion in losses, and leave behind more than 50 million tons of wreckage.

The St. Petersburg skyline, filled with new condominium towers and other development, looking west from the waterfront in June 2018. [ Chris Zuppa ]

The damage would be worst in Pinellas County. Not one household or commercial building would have power immediately after the storm. More than 70 percent of businesses would be completely destroyed, and the county’s mobile home parks would cease to exist.

The further from landfall, the better residents may fare. Hillsborough would be mostly without power, and more than 60 percent of businesses would be destroyed. Pasco County would go completely dark, and 50 percent of businesses would be gone.

What is different about Phoenix 2.0 is that it comes with a program to help small businesses prepare for and survive a major storm.

The simulation estimates 40 percent of small businesses wouldn’t reopen following the storm. Within a year, 25 percent more would close.

Two years out, 90 percent of small businesses would fail because of a storm.

“So we have a lot to protect,” Sullivan said.

• • •

Death is the biggest concern of Pinellas County Emergency Management Director Cathie Perkins. No amount of messaging to the public or advanced preparations can eliminate the fatalities that will result from the massive evacuation, the storm and its aftermath.

“There will inevitably be loss of life,” she said.

The 2009 Hurricane Phoenix simulation estimated the storm would cause nearly 2,200 deaths; the 2.0 simulation didn’t estimate a death toll or the storm’s effect on poverty.

Related: A hurricane during the pandemic would be bad. The economic crisis will make things worse.

But Sullivan said the suffering will be worse among underprivileged communities, where people likely live at or below the poverty line and in older structures. They will also be less likely to buy seven days’ worth of food in preparation for a storm. State officials say that’s how long it could take for help to arrive.

The pandemic will also present challenges, Perkins said, for both citizens and planners. Emergency officials have made alterations to their shelter plans to accommodate pandemic risks. Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton said each evacuee taking shelter needs 60 square feet of space instead of the old figure of 20 square feet to maintain social distancing and prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Clients line up for food at the Salvation Army's mobile food pantry on April 23 at the Salvation Army Citadel Community Center, 3800 Ninth Ave. N in St. Petersburg. According to Randi-Lyn Farrell, Salvation Army director of development, many clients lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

But the pandemic has enhanced cooperation between faith groups, feeding organizations, mental health experts and governments to prepare for that aftermath, Perkins said. Those strengthened relationships would become critical if a Phoenix-like storm were to strike.

Still, governments and nonprofits can only do so much. Perkins said residents need to prepare on their own: They’ll need masks and sanitizer to stay safe in shelters and at least seven days of food, water and medicine to live on after a storm.

It will take time for help to reach them, and even more time to stabilize that help for the hard months to come.

“I can’t do it alone,” she said.

• • •

Local governments say they’re doing what they can to prepare for the worst-case scenarios outlined in the Phoenix 2.0 simulation.

If a hurricane damages the bay area’s three bridges — which are most vital to Pinellas County — Perkins said they’re ready for that. They’ve already talked with state and federal agencies about using amphibious vehicles to shuttle emergency supplies across waterways.

But a full scale recovery effort would stall if a major storm wipes out the bridges and other critical roadways, said Hillsborough County’s Metropolitan Planning Organization executive director Beth Alden.

Related: It could cost billions to get key Tampa Bay roads ready for future severe weather, study says
Vehicles are parked along Cape San Blas Road near where the road was washed away by the strength of Hurricane Michael on Oct. 13, 2018 in Cape San Blas. Residents of the small strip of land south of Mexico Beach had to make the trek on foot to get to their homes along the beach. [ CHRIS URSO | TNS ]

For every 2½ weeks a critical road is out of service after a storm, the loss to the regional economy is equivalent to what it would have cost to have built the road to withstand such a storm in the first place.

Mitigation, like preventative health care, is fiscally responsible, said Whit Remer, Tampa’s sustainability and resilience officer.

Every dollar invested in girding infrastructure for a major storm pays for itself four-fold.

“Is it worth it to make these investments now?” Alden asked. “And the answer is, ‘Oh yeah, it’s definitely worth it.’”

• • •

2020 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide

HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane

PREPARE FOR COVID-19 AND THE STORM: The CDC's tips for this pandemic-hurricane season

PREPARE YOUR STUFF: Get your documents and your data ready for a storm

BUILD YOUR KIT: The stuff you’ll need to stay safe — and comfortable — for the storm

PROTECT YOUR PETS: Your pets can’t get ready for a storm. That’s your job

NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter

Lessons from Hurricane Michael

What the Panhandle’s top emergency officials learned from Michael

‘We’re not going to give up.’ What a school superintendent learned from Michael

What Tampa Bay school leaders fear most from a storm

Tampa Bay’s top cops fear for those who stay behind

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