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Behind the scenes on the ‘Rising Threat’ project

The series unfolding on tampabay.com first sprouted in 2019 during hurricane reporting.
Times staff writers Zachary T. Sampson, left, and Langston Taylor explore coastal properties near Shell Street in Satellite Beach on Dec. 19, 2019, while assessing erosion in the city, which officials have described as progressive and attribute to climate change and sea level rise.
Times staff writers Zachary T. Sampson, left, and Langston Taylor explore coastal properties near Shell Street in Satellite Beach on Dec. 19, 2019, while assessing erosion in the city, which officials have described as progressive and attribute to climate change and sea level rise. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes ]
Published Jan. 20|Updated Jan. 21

In Sunday’s Tampa Bay Times, you’ll find the first part of a series we’ve been working on for the better part of two years.

The special report from Zachary T. Sampson and Langston Taylor dives into the unique risk of storm-surge flooding in the Tampa Bay area. You can read Part 1 online now.

When you see big projects like this, I bet you wonder where the ideas came from. This one has a long tail.

It started in early 2019 as we were covering the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in the Panhandle. Zack and photographer Douglas R. Clifford had been making regular trips to Mexico Beach to follow one family rebuilding the Driftwood Inn after the storm.

Photographer Douglas R. Clifford, left, and staff writer Zachary T. Sampson are photographed during a stop on the U.S. 98 bridge out of Port St. Joe in October 2018 after Hurricane Michael. Photo by Tony Whitfield
Photographer Douglas R. Clifford, left, and staff writer Zachary T. Sampson are photographed during a stop on the U.S. 98 bridge out of Port St. Joe in October 2018 after Hurricane Michael. Photo by Tony Whitfield [ TAMPA BAY TIMES | Tampa Bay Times ]

We got together at some point and talked about the incredible visuals Doug was assembling, really breathtaking images of miles of destruction. We started thinking about how we could share those with readers. We wanted residents of Tampa Bay to see the desolation and think about their own risk and need for preparation. We know the Panhandle can seem far away and sometimes hurricanes can feel like not a big deal to people who have lived here a while.

Langston, our data editor, helped us broaden the concept from visuals to data analysis. He made connections with scientists at the University of North Carolina, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University. Every conversation was an eye-opener about what was possible to model and track.

Photographer Douglas R. Clifford, left, and data editor Langston Taylor on a reporting trip to Satellite Beach in December 2019.
Photographer Douglas R. Clifford, left, and data editor Langston Taylor on a reporting trip to Satellite Beach in December 2019. [ ZACHARY T. SAMPSON | Tampa Bay Times ]

We had to set our work aside to cover the pandemic. When we picked the project back up in January 2021, we were struck by Tropical Storm Eta and its brush of destruction. It wasn’t even a hurricane, but flooding overwhelmed the area. Some people had to be rescued from their homes.

We went through our notes and files and wondered if we could look at that storm through the lens of climate change and illustrate the risk to the Tampa Bay area. Track the storm now, then project what it could do in 30 years. The length of a mortgage.

The game-changer came in the summer when we made contact with the National Hurricane Center and they agreed to use their high-powered computers to do the storm modeling for us. It was a major boost to a project we had been laboring over as both reporters worked on big assignments for their full-time beats.

This first-of-its-kind partnership sent us into high gear, tracking down Tampa Bay residents affected by Eta. We found some powerful stories in Shore Acres and Madeira Beach. And then we had photographer Luis Santana capture images of the neighborhoods at increased risk from future storms. He went up in a plane and commanded his drone from the ground. Tampa Bay is so beautiful.

An aerial view of the Shore Acres neighborhood in St. Petersburg.
An aerial view of the Shore Acres neighborhood in St. Petersburg. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The heart of this project has come as we’ve worked from home, apart from the natural collaboration we’re used to on major stories. The reporters and I met in person twice in the past few months. Prior to that, we hadn’t been in the same room since March 2020. We held a stream of Microsoft Teams meetings with lots of talented co-workers, all for the story we refer to as Driftwood — in honor of those first stories on the family in Mexico Beach.

We’re really proud to present this work, which is possible only because of support from readers like you.

• • •

2022 Tampa Bay Times hurricane guide

THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE: Seven hurricane myths that need to go away

BACK-UP YOUR DATA: Protect your data, documents and photos

BUILD YOUR HURRICANE KIT: Gear up — and mask up — before the storm hits

PROTECT YOUR PETS: Here’s how to keep your pets as safe as you

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

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