Hurricane Ian could bring storm surge to Tampa Bay. Here’s what to know.

Florida’s west coast is uniquely vulnerable to storm surge.
Flooding is seen at Tampa General Hospital as Tropical Storm Eta sends torrential downpours, storm surge flooding and wind across the Tampa Bay Area on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020.
Flooding is seen at Tampa General Hospital as Tropical Storm Eta sends torrential downpours, storm surge flooding and wind across the Tampa Bay Area on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. [ LUIS SANTANA | AP ]
Published Sept. 25, 2022|Updated Sept. 27, 2022

As Hurricane Ian snakes toward the Sunshine State over the next few days, officials worry about a potentially dangerous storm surge along Florida’s west coast and Panhandle.

Ian is expected to move over the warm waters of the Caribbean today and rapidly intensify before making its way into the Gulf of Mexico, the National Hurricane Center said Monday.

Forecasters said Ian could bring strong winds and dangerous storm surge along the west coast of Florida, including the Tampa Bay area, beginning Wednesday. The National Hurricane Center has a hurricane watch and storm surge watch in place from Englewood to the Anclote River, which includes all of Tampa Bay.

As it moves around, Ian will leave many regions feeling its wrath, notably through storm surges. Here’s what you need to know about storm surge and its risks to Florida.

What is storm surge?

Storm surge occurs when there’s a departure from normal tide levels, said Pablo Santos, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Miami.

“Whatever amount of water you end up with that is above or beyond the regular tide is storm surge,” Santos said.

A storm’s intensity, its wind field and the topography of the coast all affect the severity of the rise in water, Santos said. Over time, winds push water toward the coast, which causes flooding. And a slowing storm — like Hurricane Ian — can be a problem.

“A storm that is moving very slowly as it’s approaching the coast has more time to keep pushing the water further inland as it’s crossing the coast,” he said.

Does storm surge happen when the storm nears the coast?

A storm can generate significant storm surge from afar, Santos said, especially in areas similar to the Gulf of Mexico, which is almost like an enclosed space.

“You can have the storm moving well offshore ... and generating a significant storm surge,” he said.

The shape of Florida’s coast doesn’t help, either, he said. With a hurricane moving parallel to the coast, the water ends up getting trapped and amplifies the effects of storm surge.

And with these existing concerns, Santos noted that Ian is also forecast to strengthen into a major hurricane and to expand considerably as it moves into the gulf.

“Those are prime ingredients ... to get a significant amount of storm surge,” he said.

How will Florida be affected by storm surge?

Santos suspects Florida’s west coast will be impacted to varying degrees. Though it’s still too early to tell what areas will be the most affected.

Florida’s west coast is uniquely vulnerable to storm surge. The shallow shelf in the Gulf of Mexico can push tremendous amounts of water onshore.

“Those areas where the coastal topography is very shallow, they’re more prone for surge,” Santos said.

The National Hurricane Center predicted at 5 p.m. Sunday that there will be storm surges of 1 to 3 feet from East Cape Sable to Card Sound Bridge in addition to the Florida Keys, Dry Tortugas and Florida Bay.

Acting National Hurricane Center Director Jamie Rhome said the region had “perhaps some of the highest vulnerability in the country” to storm surge.

“I’m telling you it doesn’t take an onshore or a direct hit from a hurricane to pile up the water,” he said. “We could see a significant amount of storm surge on the west coast of Florida even if the storm stays offshore.”

Coastal Emergency Risks Assessment, a map created by Louisiana State University that delivers storm surge guidance, predicts there will be hot spots near Tampa and much of the north-central coast of the state later into the week.

What do I do if there’s storm surge in my area?

If you live in an area that is storm surge-prone, stay informed and follow the advice of local emergency management. You might be ordered to evacuate.

Officials are imploring the public to prepare for Hurricane Ian. Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for all of Florida’s 67 counties on Saturday, and President Joe Biden declared an emergency for the state. Schools across the area also announced they would close this week.

This past weekend, the Tampa Bay area also opened a number of sandbag locations. You can find a location near you here.

You should know your zone to stay updated on whether you need to evacuate. You can identify your zone by inputting your address into this map.

“If you’re living in an evacuation zone and they place you under mandatory evacuation, you should heed that and comply,” Santos said. “Because literally, your life is at risk.”

• • •

2022 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide

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RISING THREAT: Tampa Bay will flood. Here's how to get ready.

DOUBLE-CHECK: Checklists for building all kinds of hurricane kits

PHONE IT IN: Use your smartphone to protect your data, documents and photos.

SELF-CARE: Protect your mental health during a hurricane.

• • •

Rising Threat: A special report on flood risk and climate change

PART 1: The Tampa Bay Times partnered with the National Hurricane Center for a revealing look at future storms.

PART 2: Even weak hurricanes can cause huge storm surges. Experts say people don't understand the risk.

PART 3: Tampa Bay has huge flood risk. What should we do about it?

INTERACTIVE MAP: Search your Tampa Bay neighborhood to see the hurricane flood risk.