ST. PETERSBURG — It was not a hurricane.
It did not make landfall here, but nearer to Cedar Key, about 90 miles north of Tampa.
Still, in brushing by, 45 miles west of St. Petersburg with 70 mph winds and soaking peels of rain, Tropical Storm Eta left swaths of the Tampa Bay area staggering. Many residents awoke Thursday safe and dry, off to work, the airport back up and running, buses and most streets, too. But just a short drive away, by their favorite beach or only one neighborhood over, the storm had eroded a sense of security.
Under several feet of storm surge, bays topped seawalls, especially on the barrier islands of Pinellas, a county where deputies used high-water vehicles to rescue 33 people. Flooding inundated areas around Tampa General Hospital, the region’s only level-one trauma center. Water crept up the steps and into homes on Shore Drive in Oldsmar, and also in St. Petersburg’s Shore Acres, where a man surveyed the streets on a paddleboard. Along the Hillsborough River, at the University of Tampa, people slid across the grass on skimboards. Two of the three major spans over Tampa Bay were at least partially shut down as waters rose. Late-night drivers on the Howard Frankland Bridge steered past frothy waves breaking over the concrete barriers.
“We’ve had floods before,” said Donna Mooren, who spent the morning with her family tearing up carpet, moving furniture and toweling down a waterlogged home in Shore Acres. “But this surprised us.”
In a year when calamities have humbled us again and again, it would be easy to dismiss Eta as just another dose of 2020. But for Tampa Bay, the storm offered a reminder of what risk here really means, and how it does not take a major storm to deal a major blow.
“It’s not a surprise,” said Spectrum Bay News 9 meteorologist Diane Kacmarik. "Tampa Bay just by geography and population is super vulnerable.”
There was not much time, and perhaps even less bandwidth after an exhausting year, to panic. Wednesday morning, Eta’s forecast cone was firmly over western Florida, after days of drifting like a searchlight across the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Rain fell by late morning and gusts of wind jostled the trees. Conditions worsened, battering the coast into the night.
Many places saw between 3 and 6 inches of rain, said Keily Delerme, a forecaster at the National Weather Service in Ruskin. Some spots in Pinellas and Hillsborough saw more, about 8 inches.
Preliminary estimates showed Tampa Bay experienced between 3 and 4 feet of storm surge, according to the National Hurricane Center. Robert Weisberg, an oceanography professor at the University of South Florida, said flooding was more severe because the surge coincided with high tide.
A gauge in Clearwater showed a maximum surge of about 3.12 feet, Weisberg said, with another in St. Petersburg registering at 3.69 feet. In Hillsborough Bay, he said, a gauge indicated 4.19 feet of surge on top of the tide.
Daylight on Thursday revealed flooding in places like Oldsmar and Gulfport, cities adjacent to bays that funnel floodwaters.
“A storm surge really is a slope to the sea surface, so the farther up slope you are, the higher the water will be,” Weisberg said. With a full-bore hurricane, he said, “we can get numbers like 20 feet (of surge) in the upper reaches of Tampa Bay.”
A track similar to Eta’s, past the mouth of the bay before landfall further north, is a worst-case scenario, Kacmarik said. Such a course allows strong winds to pile up water on the shallow coast.
“We were actually lucky that it was November,” Kacmarik said, noting how conditions are cooler late in the hurricane season. “With an October atmosphere, this would have been maybe a Category 2 or 3 hurricane.”
It wouldn’t take a major storm to inundate many coastal homes in Tampa Bay. Tropical storms and weak hurricanes, if they take an unfortunate track, can do lots of damage. Across Florida, about 8 percent of the state’s properties are at risk of flooding in worst-case Category 1 hurricanes, based on a Times analysis of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data and 2018 property records.
In Pinellas County, that rate is three times as high, about 28 percent.
About 1:30 a.m., a family — two adults, three small children and two animals — turned up in a sheriff’s Humvee at the Alden Suites Beachfront Resort in St. Pete Beach. They were barefoot, manager Buddy Hyer said, and drenched.
The family was among nearly three dozen people deputies said they rescued using boats or special vehicles overnight, mostly from Pass-a-Grille to Madeira Beach. The sheriff’s office said no one was hurt.
At John’s Pass Village, floodwater overtopped docks and poured into businesses. Terry Ryan, owner of Fly-N-High Waverunners, said he got about 2½ feet in his shop, the most in 15 years.
“It’s Mother Nature,” he said. “We’re at her mercy.”
Eta tossed rocks across the asphalt at Bay Vista Park in St. Petersburg, with high water leaving muck behind, tracing the extent of the surge. It deluged homes at a manufactured home community off Gandy Boulevard.
Two inches of water flooded the laundry room of Garry and Sandy Sears in Oldsmar. The wind had toppled a utility pole outside and left trash cans and planters strewn about their yard. Up the block, Otto Lohmann, 87, put on white boots and gloves, heaving downed branches the size of his body.
Six boats washed ashore overnight in Gulfport, hulls exposed in the sand. A police sergeant looked them over, trying to identify their owners.
“I don’t think anybody expected this big of a blow,” said E.J. Simons, 66, who strolled past to see what Eta had wrought.
Nearby, Gary Alpers, 63, used a shop vacuum to suck up the water at More Bazaar. A few inches had soaked the long dresses that touched the floor.
Bay water rushed past the balustrade by midnight, turning Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard into a temporary river.
When the water receded, it left a number of stalled vehicles. Fire rescue crews had pulled about 12 drivers from high water overnight, the local department said.
As the morning progressed, officials in Tampa steadily opened the roadways Eta had shuttered. The asphalt in some places was covered by silty muck. Authorities kept the eastbound Courtney Campbell Causeway, from Clearwater to Tampa, shut down for hours because of debris.
Military leaders at MacDill Air Force Base advised personnel to avoid several flooded areas around Bayshore. The city did not record any major structural damage, nor did greater Hillsborough County.
Hillsborough deputies responded to 110 calls about the storm by mid-morning, said spokeswoman Crystal Clark. Most people were concerned about flooding; some also reported downed power lines. The problems had been centered in neighborhoods closest to the water, including around Town 'N Country.
Clark said the agency considered the area lucky. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said Eta was a good reminder. Tampa Bay has not been hit directly by a major hurricane since 1921, but forecasters say a serious storm could come any summer or fall, bending northeast like Eta through the gulf.
“These storms are incredibly unpredictable,” Castor said. “This storm was probably the best example of that unpredictability that I’ve seen.”
At Eta’s peak, more than 35,000 Duke Energy customers in Pinellas and Pasco went without power. Across the bay, about 10,000 Tampa Electric Co. households did not have power about 4 a.m.
Just under 10,000 electric customers region-wide were still in the dark at mid-afternoon.
The storm, bearing gusts above 50 mph, left downed branches and trees in many cities. Roads were closed in South Pasadena and Safety Harbor.
South of the Sunshine Skyway, which was also closed because of the storm, a 65-year-old man in Bradenton Beach died by electrocution while handling sandbags in a flooded laundry room.
A spokesman said Pasco County made it through Eta without major damage, and no roads were closed Thursday morning.
The driver of a UPS double tractor-trailer lost control in the wind and crashed in Hernando County, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
Melanie Montagna, a manager, spent part of the morning picking up fallen palm fronds at the Hernando Beach Motel. She felt fortunate. No boats suffered major damage at the nearby 22 slips under her care.
“The water never reached the seawall,” Montagna said. “We never had any flooding.”
Kara Mihelich, 35, and her boyfriend finished moving into their house on Denver Street NE in St. Petersburg on Monday. They had lived in Tampa before and knew streets around Shore Acres sometimes flood.
As the storm approached, neighbors told them not to worry. Have a drink, they said, and pull up the cars close to the house.
The couple stayed awake and watched movies, waiting for the predicted high tide. About midnight, some water pushed past the front door. Soon the sea was pouring through the baseboard of every room. Five inches filled their home in about two minutes, Mihelich said.
They hurriedly stacked moving boxes and heirlooms in bathtubs. Crying, Mihelich cradled her cat and called their rental insurance provider. Their policy had not kicked in yet.
Water soaked all their furniture, climbing up the legs of their chairs, into the bottom of their couch, along their bed frame. Thursday morning, Mihelich found the brakes in her car did not work, having been flooded overnight.
She started to move whatever was dry to her grandfather’s old house in Seminole. The walls in their rental were soggy and salty 3 feet above the floor. They could not imagine staying.
Neighbors told her it was the worst flooding they had seen in at least two decades.
“It was a sobering midnight hour,” she said.
Times staff writers Bailey LeFever, Kathryn Varn, Megan Reeves, Josh Solomon, Romy Ellenbogen, Anastasia Dawson, Malena Carollo, Josh Fiallo, Ileana Najarro, Caitlin Johnston, Martha Asencio-Rhine, Douglas R. Clifford, Christopher Spata, Karen Peterson, Langston Taylor, Sue Carlton, Jack Evans and Justine Griffin contributed to this report.
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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