Hurricane Irma is so strong it's pulling water from Tampa Bay's shores

Published September 10 2017
Updated September 11 2017

TAMPA — Streets throughout downtown had been empty for hours and people were returning to their homes to ride out Hurricane Irma ahead of the city's 6 p.m. curfew.

But what they spotted on the way was too much to pass up for some people, including 10-year-old Felix Carrillo and his mom, Hilda Carillo.

"It feels like walking on a really wet beach," Felix said as he and his mom trudged through puddle-riddled sludge left behind as winds from the storm sucked most of the water from the north end of Hillsborough Bay on Sunday afternoon.

Those who chose to stay behind for the approaching hurricane discovered an eerie signal of the approaching storm: Irma was pulling the water away from Tampa Bay's shores.

Meteorologists call the phenomenon a "reverse storm surge," said Tyler Fleming, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.

Strong eastern and northeastern winds blowing to the southwest caused the water to drain caused the water to drain from Hillsborough Bay as Irma's center moves closer to Tampa, Fleming said. However, the lower atmospheric pressure in the hurricane's center will allow the water to "bubble up" offshore and then rush back into the bay closely behind the storm as it whips through Tampa with winds around 110 miles per hour, Fleming said.

The worst storm surge will come right after the storm moves north at a current speed of about 14 miles per hour, Fleming said. In a worst case scenario, that surge could cause water levels in Hillsborough Bay to rise 5 to 8 feet.

Initially, Felix and his mom were content with taking selfies over the iconic balustrade along Bayshore Boulevard. But after a few minutes of watching from the sidewalk, they just couldn't resist taking a walk where they're used to seeing water.

Live Blog: Find the latest on Hurricane Irma

"This is really crazy. It's probably a once in a lifetime experience for us — hopefully," Hilda Carillo said.

The Carillos, a military family, were living in Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina hit but they managed to stay out of the storm's path. This storm is different. They have only lived in Tampa for a few weeks, and with her husband away for training, mother and son are on their own to prepare their home for the worst.

"We're going to be sleeping in my bathroom," Felix said. "I'm not too scared."

Bryan Zinober, 38, heard through word of mouth that the bay had drained and couldn't resist seeing it for himself. He and his family walked five blocks from their Hyde Park home to see if it was true.

"I'm born and raised here and I've never seen it receding like this," Zinober said. "It's amazing."

Curiosity got the better of Jason Bowes, 38, and Christine Bowes, 31, who ventured from their apartment in downtown's Channelside district to take a few selfies with their dog, Cupertino. They decided to remain on the sidewalk, though.

"I'm good with trying to stay as dry as possible for as long as possible," Bowes said.

Irma Live Briefing: Weakened storm reaches Tampa Bay

A steady stream of curious Tampa residents walked out on the bay, taking selfies and cell phone videos while smiling and laughing as their flip-flops got stuck in the muck.

By about 2:10 p.m., Tampa Police had ordered everyone off the temporary beach and back on the sidewalk. But even a few officers couldn't resist pausing for a selfie and a smile before facing what Irma will bring to Tampa.

They should be long gone by the time the water comes rushing back in, fueled by Irma's storm surge and steady rain.

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