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Storm surge imperils 455,000 Tampa Bay homes, report says

Published Jun. 1, 2016

Nearly 455,000 Tampa Bay homes could be damaged by hurricane storm surges, the most in any major metro area except Miami and New York City. And rebuilding all those homes could cost $80.6 billion.

That's according to a report released Wednesday by CoreLogic, a global property information firm, as the 2016 Atlantic hurricane season officially kicks off with two named storms already on the record books.

CoreLogic said 454,746 Tampa Bay homes are vulnerable to hurricane flooding, a number that represents about a third of all the area's homes. Of those, 92,103 are in what CoreLogic calls the "extreme'' risk zone. That means they could be affected by even a relatively modest Category 1 with winds from 74 to 95 mph and a surge in the 4- to 5-foot range.

A color map accompanying the report shows the extreme risk zone in bright red, outlining almost the entire coastlines of Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties and most of the coastal areas in Hillsborough.

CoreLogic Inc.

Storm surge risk in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area. (Tap to enlarge.)

CoreLogic Inc.

Storm surge risk in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area. (Tap to enlarge.)

The gravity of the threat does not mean greater public awareness, however.

"I think any time we go this long without anything happening, people stop paying attention,'' Sally Bishop, Pinellas County's emergency management director, said Wednesday. "And you've got to remember that we're getting 50,000 new people (in the bay area) a year, probably a lot from parts of the country that don't even know what a hurricane is.''

Tampa Bay has not received a direct hit from a major hurricane since 1921, though it dodged a potential catastrophe in 2004 when Hurricane Charley made an unexpected turn and slammed into the gulf coast farther south around Punta Gorda.

The federal Climate Prediction Center says the 2016 Atlantic season could have 10 to 16 named storms, of which as many as eight could become major hurricanes with winds of 111 mph or higher. Two tropical systems already have formed this year — Hurricane Alex, an extremely rare January storm, and Tropical Storm Bonnie, which drenched parts of the Carolinas over the Memorial Day weekend.

The CoreLogic report is not quite as dire as one released last fall by a Boston-based firm, Karen Clark & Co. (KCC), which said Tampa Bay is the nation's most vulnerable metro area to storm surge flooding caused by a once-in-century hurricane. It estimated potential losses at $175 billion, more than in New Orleans or New York City.

KCC said Tampa Bay acts as a "large funnel'' for surges, forcing water into narrow channels and bayous with nowhere else to go.

"A severe storm with the right track orientation will cause an enormous buildup of water that will become trapped in the bay and inundate large areas of Tampa and St. Petersburg,'' the KCC study said. "Fifty percent of the population lies on ground elevations of less than 10 feet.''

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At a Tampa City Hall media conference Wednesday, city and National Weather Service officials said storm surge is the No. 1 threat from hurricanes or a tropical storm.

With a Category 3 hurricane or stronger, "you could very well see 25 feet of water where we are right now in downtown Tampa," said Brian LaMarre, meteorologist-in-charge of the National Weather Service for the Tampa Bay area.

June is a time when storm surge risk rises for the bay area, and LaMarre said forecasters already are watching "a developing system that may come close to Florida by mid to late next week."

"If we got a Cat 3 coming across Hillsborough Bay, my house is gone," said Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who lives on Davis Islands. "There will come a day when we will be hit. That is going to happen, I can promise you. … When you hear me say it's time to evacuate, I am not kidding.''

Thanks to a $30,000 federal grant it received a few years ago, Hillsborough County bought and posted 15 signs throughout the county to show how high the water could get.

"Most are no less than 13 feet, they're very dramatic,'' said Preston Cook, the county's emergency management director. "It's to remind people how serious this is.''

Both Hillsborough and Pinellas offer a new system that sends weather alerts and other emergency information via cellphones, landlines, voice mail and text. (Sign up at pinellascounty.org/emergency or hillsboroughcounty.org/hcflalert or tampagov.net/police/programs/alert-tampa.)

According to CoreLogic, Florida has the highest number of homes at risk from hurricane flooding with a total of 2.7 million. In addition to Tampa Bay, the Fort Myers, Sarasota, Naples and Jacksonville areas ranked among the top 15 metro areas most vulnerable to storm surges.

Nationwide, more than 6.8 million homes along the Atlantic and gulf coasts are vulnerable to hurricane-related flooding, CoreLogic said.

Like other emergency management offices, "We (in Pinellas) do our best to educate residents,'' Bishop said, "but most people don't like to think about bad things happening to them specifically.''

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.


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