TAMPA — Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn today enacted a citywide curfew starting at 6 p.m. after getting Tampa Electric estimates that as much as 60 percent of the city could lack electricity after Hurricane Irma strikes.
Meanwhile, St. Petersburg has enacted a 5 p.m. curfew.
"You may not have power for a number of days, if not weeks," Buckhorn said. "We know that we are ground zero for Hurricane Irma. For 90 years we have avoided this day, but I think our day has come. ... What I am concerned about the most is the storm surge."
Buckhorn and Police Chief Brian Dugan said after 6 p.m. people should be off the streets entirely.
"If you don't need to be out, don't go out," Buckhorn said. "We will be — let me underscore this — we will be very aggressive with anybody that we find looting. There is nothing worse than taking advantage of your fellow citizens at a time like this. We will not tolerate in any way, shape or form anybody we catch engaged in criminal behavior, particularly in the areas that have been hardest-hit by this hurricane."
"If you are out on the street as of 6 o'clock, we are going to challenge you and find out what you're doing out there," Dugan said. "It's very important that everyone stay inside until we give the all-clear."
The city will assess conditions as soon as officials can get police helicopters in the air after the storm and lift the curfew on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis where feasible. An estimated 72,000 people have sought refuge in Hillsborough County shelters.
"Power will be out; trees will be down," Buckhorn said. "Once this storm hits, we can get back out with our crews to help move the debris. We will start with the arterials in the hardest-hit areas to help open up the passageways so that people can get home. The curfew will remain in place until we determine that there is no risk to life from downed power lines or downed trees.
"Be cognizant, once you get back in your neighborhood of who belongs there and who doesn't," Buckhorn said. "You see somebody in your neighborhood who doesn't live there and doesn't belong there, call the Tampa Police Department, and we'll take care of the rest of it."
And officials said the curfew could stay in place in some especially hard-hit areas for several days.
Police said they have been working for three or four days to get homeless people to go to shelters, but, Buckhorn said, "not all of them choose to go."
People violating the curfew could be arrested or given a misdemeanor citation.
As the storm approaches and hits, Tampa police and fire will not be dispatched to calls for help once sustained winds hit 40 mph.
"Do not call 911 if the wind is blowing consistently beyond 40 mph, because we are not going to be able to come and help you," Buckhorn said.
Officials said people can get storm-related text alerts from the city by texting "TampaReady" to 888-777. For alerts in Spanish, text "TampaLista" to 888-777.
City officials say they prepare year-round for an emergency like this one, but Buckhorn acknowledged that Tampa, its public servants and its citizens will be put to the test.
"Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face," he said, referring to a comment from former heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson. "Well, we're about to get punched in the face."
Contact Richard Danielson at email@example.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times