Are you ready for a rapidly intensifying hurricane? | Editorial
It’s one thing to shelter in place for a Category 1. What if a storm, like Laura, becomes a Category 4 almost overnight?
Hurricane Laura over the Gulf of Mexico before making landfall as a Category 4 storm.
Hurricane Laura over the Gulf of Mexico before making landfall as a Category 4 storm. [ AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Aug. 27, 2020

This could have been us. Remember that as you spare a moment for the victims of Hurricane Laura in Louisiana and Texas. Last week, the Tampa Bay area was squarely in this storm’s crosshairs. We won’t know the extent of the damage for a while, but we do know it could have been us. And Laura provides the latest example of another unpleasant reality: storms that intensify dramatically and quickly — and could upend personal preparation plans.

Thanks to warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Laura intensified in just 24 hours from a Category 1 storm to a Category 4 monster packing 150 mph winds — and a storm surge to match. We are taught to run from the water and hide from the wind. And particularly with the perils of a pandemic, sheltering in place seems preferable for most Floridians. Indeed, a recent University of South Florida survey showed that Floridians have become more self-reliant, better prepared and less likely to go to a hurricane shelter. Because of the pandemic, fully 71 percent are less likely to evacuate to a shelter.

The Tampa Bay area is particularly vulnerable to hurricanes and their storm surge because of its many miles of waterfront and the shallow bay. Everyone should know their evacuation zone, which is based on predicted surge. But they must include another factor in their evacuation calculus: They are hunkered down and prudently prepared to weather a Category 1 hurricane at home because they’re in a safe-enough zone, say C or D. The hurricane suddenly becomes a Category 4, which means they should evacuate because the surge is potentially too dangerous. But now it’s too late.

This is a personal planning decision, and it’s a factor that’s becoming more important to consider. It’s not always an easy choice. Who wants to hit the road days ahead of a storm that may never come? That presents dangers of its own. But dealing with the reality of quickly strengthening storms cannot be ignored.

Just two years ago, Hurricane Michael blew up into a Category 5 storm that devastated swaths of the Florida Panhandle. Climate change is heating the oceans and raising their levels. It’s a deadly one-two punch. Warming Gulf waters mean that these rapid intensifications are no longer unexpected but have to become part of any prudent planner’s checklist of considerations.

Three years ago, the Tampa Bay area faced Irma, a relatively minor hurricane by the time it got this far north. Remember the negative storm surge that sucked the water out of places like St. Petersburg’s Coffee Pot Bayou and Tampa’s McKay Bay? Imagine if the water had been pushed in instead of pulled out, and that the storm was a Category 3 instead of a Category 1? Rising water, not wind, is the likeliest killer in a hurricane.

Experts are predicting an extremely active remainder of the hurricane season. As always, be prepared. But be sure to add one more item to that checklist: What is your plan for a rapidly intensifying storm?

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news