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Hurricane Ian, a ‘potential historic catastrophe,’ takes aim at Tampa Bay

The region is under a hurricane warning, facing up to 12 inches of rain and storm surge of up to 10 feet.
The 11 p.m. Monday update from the National Hurricane Center for Hurricane Ian tracks it as hitting Florida's Gulf Coast just north of Tampa Bay.
The 11 p.m. Monday update from the National Hurricane Center for Hurricane Ian tracks it as hitting Florida's Gulf Coast just north of Tampa Bay. [ National Hurricane Center ]
Published Sep. 27|Updated Sep. 27

It’s been 101 years since a major hurricane struck Tampa Bay.

That lucky streak may end with Hurricane Ian.

Ian, a strengthening Category 2 hurricane as of 11 p.m. Monday, has steadied its course and is headed eastward through the Gulf of Mexico toward Florida, where the National Hurricane Center tracks it to approach the Pinellas County coast as a major hurricane by Wednesday night.

While the storm’s current track would put the eye’s landfall farther north, near the Nature Coast area, the National Weather Service on Monday put Tampa Bay under a hurricane warning for the first time since Hurricane Irma in 2017. Experts said Ian could bring up to a foot of rain and as much as 5 to 10 feet of storm surge as it lingers off the coast, which could make it one of Tampa Bay’s most dangerous hurricane threats ever.

”When I look at this storm, I feel like I felt when Andrew was approaching Miami and when Katrina was approaching New Orleans,” said Jeff Masters, a meteorologist for Yale Climate Connections and a former hurricane hunter. “We have a potential historic catastrophe in the making.”

Related: Monday's updates: Hurricane Ian headed toward Tampa Bay, evacuations ordered

In Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, residents in flood zone A went under mandatory evacuation orders at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Monday, respectively. Pinellas County residents in zones B and C have until 7 a.m. Tuesday to evacuate. Hillsborough is under a voluntary evacuation for zone B. Pasco County will evacuate residents in zones A, B and C on Tuesday morning.

“Don’t think that just because that eye may or may not be in your area, that you’re not going to see impacts,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said. “The prospect of having a hurricane come onshore in the Tampa Bay area is real.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis holds a press conference as Florida awaits Hurricane Ian’s arrival at the Pinellas County Emergency Operations Center in Largo on Monday.
Gov. Ron DeSantis holds a press conference as Florida awaits Hurricane Ian’s arrival at the Pinellas County Emergency Operations Center in Largo on Monday. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor called Ian an “incredible storm,” adding the region already is saturated with rainfall. She said the city is draining some stormwater retention ponds in preparation.

“This is going to be a storm like we have not seen in the past,” Castor said.

Ian was expected to pass over western Cuba late Monday or early Tuesday with wind speeds near 105 mph. It will remain a major hurricane as it turns northeast toward the Florida coast, though it could weaken due to wind shear as it approaches land.

No matter where the storm goes next, the region will feel its force, said Jamie Rhome, acting director of the National Hurricane Center. The only storm comparable to what Tampa Bay is poised to experience, he said, was the unnamed 1921 hurricane that battered Pinellas County from Pass-a-Grille to Tarpon Springs.

Related: Hurricane Ian could bring storm surge to Tampa Bay. Here's what you need to know.

Ian is projected to slow down in the Gulf of Mexico, which Rhome said is particularly dangerous because it increases the chance of storm surge and heavy rainfall. Tropical Storm Eta in November 2020 pushed several feet of storm surge into waterfront neighborhoods; Ian threatens to more than double that inland surge.

“At some point, people have got to stop hoping it’s going to go away and go ahead and start doing what’s necessary to protect themselves and their property,” Rhome said.

Randy Rone, 43, protects the windows on his home with plywood to prepare for tropical storm Ian in South Tampa on Monday. Rone said his family will remain home including their two dogs, two cats, two rabbits and a tortoise.
Randy Rone, 43, protects the windows on his home with plywood to prepare for tropical storm Ian in South Tampa on Monday. Rone said his family will remain home including their two dogs, two cats, two rabbits and a tortoise. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Storm prep takes over Tampa Bay

Across Tampa Bay, residents, tourists, businesses and governments alike spent Monday making last-minute storm preparations.

On Monday afternoon, Paul D’Urso was trying to figure out the best route from his South Pasadena condo to his children’s house in Wesley Chapel ahead of Pinellas County’s mandatory evacuation. He wanted to avoid congested traffic, but also didn’t want to leave his car in the garage beneath his condo to run the risk of saltwater damage.

D’Urso, 76, serves on his condo’s homeowners association board. He reminded his neighbors that the building’s generator is only designed to power the lights in hallways and other public areas.

“I had some residents call that are newbies from out of state and they said, ‘What should we do?’” D’Urso said of one neighbor who needs power for a breathing apparatus. “I said, ‘You realize the power could be out for four days. We don’t know.’”

Tampa International Airport announced late Monday it would close at 5 p.m. Tuesday in order to secure aircraft, jet bridges and ground equipment as wind speeds pick up. The airport will reopen once it can safely assess damage, survey road conditions and bring in staff. St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport said its last flight before the storm will depart at 11:22 a.m. Tuesday, with the terminal shutting down at 1 p.m. — not to reopen before Pinellas County lifts its zone A evacuation order.

On Monday morning, Port Tampa Bay began clearing debris and shutting down its waterways, queuing up 500-ton ships for departure. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge is expected to close once wind hits sustained speeds of more than 40 mph, a Florida Department of Transportation spokesperson said. The agency will close the Courtney Campbell Causeway, Gandy and Howard Frankland bridges if the bridge approaches are covered by water.

Related: DeSantis suspends tolls for Hurricane Ian, urges Floridians to 'remain calm'

Hillsborough County schools are closed through Thursday, and Pinellas and Pasco schools are closed through Friday, as are local colleges and universities. All courthouse facilities in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, including the Middle District of Florida federal court, are closed through Thursday. MacDill Air Force Base issued a mandatory evacuation by noon Tuesday for non-mission-essential personnel.

Canceled or postponed local events include preseason Lightning games on Wednesday and Thursday; a Rowdies game on Wednesday; all events at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts and Mahaffey Theater; and the Tampa Bay Boat Show at the Florida State Fairgrounds. Busch Gardens, the Florida Aquarium, Clearwater Aquarium and ZooTampa will remain closed for the next few days.

Publix has seen sales of bread, water, batteries and canned goods spike ahead of the storm, and will continue product deliveries as long as it can before Ian’s dangerous conditions arrive, spokesperson Hannah Herring said. Amazon said it was stocking a hub in Atlanta with disaster relief items and had positioned 10 trucks carrying 360,000 bottles of water across Florida.

Joellyn Rocha gets gas for her road trip to Destin as she evacuates South Tampa ahead of tropical storm Ian on Monday.
Joellyn Rocha gets gas for her road trip to Destin as she evacuates South Tampa ahead of tropical storm Ian on Monday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

While some local gas stations already were running out of fuel on Monday, AAA, the Auto Club Group, said that since the storm is unlikely to impact refineries in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, gas prices in Florida, which have been dropping, should hold relatively steady.

“A lot of fuel tankers have already made their departure because they were already able to come in and offload,” Port Tampa Bay spokesperson Lisa Wolf-Chason said. “So we should be in a good spot with fuel imports.”

Hotels on the beach began turning away and evacuating guests as evacuation orders mounted.

Rachel and Jose Acevedo, who’d traveled from New York to Clearwater Beach, were eating breakfast on Monday when they got the text from Shephard’s Beach Resort telling them they had to leave by 11 a.m.

”We started panicking,” Rachel Acevedo said. “We didn’t know it was going to be this bad.”

Resident and maintenance technician Scott Keeler of Professional Bayway Management tosses a pool chaise to George Shukis, president of the Sunrise Owner’s Association at Harbourside Condominiums in South Pasadena, to store it underwater in preparation for the arrival of Hurricane Ian on Monday.
Resident and maintenance technician Scott Keeler of Professional Bayway Management tosses a pool chaise to George Shukis, president of the Sunrise Owner’s Association at Harbourside Condominiums in South Pasadena, to store it underwater in preparation for the arrival of Hurricane Ian on Monday. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

‘The storm that we’ve all feared’

The last time Tampa Bay was placed under a hurricane warning — which, as opposed to a mere hurricane watch, means hurricane conditions are expected within 24 to 36 hours — was Sept. 8, 2017, days before Hurricane Irma descended on Marco Island. Before that, you have to go back to Hurricane Charley and Hurricane Jeanne in 2004.

DeSantis said Monday he has not yet spoken to President Joe Biden, but he said he has spoken to Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell.

Both DeSantis and state Attorney General Ashley Moody are originally from the Tampa Bay area, and Moody said she’s already encouraged her family to be prepared.

“We have often talked about this kind of storm hitting Tampa Bay and what it could do to this area,” she said. “This could be the storm that we’ve all feared.”

Related: How to talk to children about Hurricane Ian

Earlier this year, a Times analysis used National Hurricane Center data and modeling to determine that about 1 in 5 built properties in Pinellas County, and 1 in 9 in Tampa, are at risk of flooding during a Category 1 hurricane.

Diego Tudor of Crystal Beach, boards up the building which houses his business, M.A.S. Superior Service, on Monday in Palm Harbor as Hurricane Ian approaches the Tampa Bay Area.
Diego Tudor of Crystal Beach, boards up the building which houses his business, M.A.S. Superior Service, on Monday in Palm Harbor as Hurricane Ian approaches the Tampa Bay Area. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The hurricane could approach Wednesday night into Thursday morning. The timing would be critical.

A high tide is expected to hit St. Petersburg before dawn Thursday, potentially offering nearly 3 feet more water to a surge than if the storm hit later, around low tide. A lower tide will hit about 11 a.m. Thursday.

There is a chance the region could see a lesser surge if Ian veers into the coast well south or stays many miles offshore. But if the storm passes within about 100 miles west of the bay, Masters said, people should expect damage.

“You could still very well get lucky from this one,” he said.

But he wouldn’t bank on it.

“If I had the means to get out of Tampa,” he said, “I would leave today.”

Times staff writers Bernadette Berdychowski, Jack Evans, Olivia George, Emily L. Mahoney, Tony Marrerro, Tracey McManus, Sam Ogozalek, Dan Sullivan, Natalie Weber and Colleen Wright contributed to this report.

• • •

2022 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide

IT'S STORM SEASON: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.

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.

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