Category 4 could leave Tampa area devastated

A storm surge alone would submerge parts of Tampa and make St. Petersburg an island.

Published August 31, 2005

Watching the massive flooding and rooftop rescues in New Orleans and Mississippi begs the inevitable question: Could it be that bad here?

Yes. Picture 22 feet of water surging into downtown Tampa. And Oldsmar. And Shore Acres.

"No one's ever seen water that deep here that's living here now," said Pinellas Emergency Management Director Gary Vickers. "If anyone here now was here during the '21 hurricane they might have seen some water 15 to 18 feet deep, but not 20."

If Hurricane Katrina had smashed into the Tampa Bay area with its 145-mph winds and 22-foot storm surge, people here could expect massive flooding, bridges damaged or closed, impassable roads, shut-down airports, dead phones, a shattered tourist economy and general chaos.

"It is going to be absolutely miserable," said Larry Gispert, Hillsborough emergency manager. "You will have no electricity, no water, nothing to eat. You will be in 95-degree temperatures, 90 percent humidity, and even if your house survives you're not going to have the normal utility service."

Even in dry areas, "We would still be seeing massive amounts of building damage with that kind of a storm," said Pinellas sheriff's Capt. Scott Stiner.

Predicting the damage from a Katrina-sized storm is not easy because of important variables, including its direction. But Robert Weisberg, a professor of physical oceanography at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, has studied several scenarios.

In one, a Category 4 hurricane similar to Katrina's strength smashes into Indian Rocks Beach and begins crossing Pinellas.

The wind sweeps counterclockwise and shovels water into the mouth of Tampa Bay, filling it like a bathtub with the water left on.

"St. Petersburg looks like an island," Weisberg said. "So the Boca Ciega Bay is connected with Old Tampa Bay through the low-lying areas.

"South Tampa is largely covered with water," he said. "Much of downtown Tampa is covered with water."

But the worst storm surge comes at the upper reaches of Tampa Bay - Old Tampa Bay and Hillsborough Bay.

That's why seawater would flood Oldsmar in this scenario and spill into downtown Safety Harbor, which Weisberg said was "inaptly named."

Seawater could flood all the way across northern Pinellas County into Lake Tarpon and on to the Anclote River near Tarpon Springs.

Once covered with water, Pinellas would drain off quickly.

Unlike New Orleans, this area's cities don't lie below sea level.

But don't celebrate yet. It would take months to repair the damage caused by high water and wind.

The surge from a storm like Katrina likely would have "a significant impact" on the low-level approaches to the Sunshine Skyway and other critical bridges in the region, including those across Tampa Bay, according to Pepe Garcia, structures and facilities engineer for the Florida Department of Transportation.

The damage done by high winds, Garcia said, would depend on how long they lasted and the angle at which they hit the structures.

"Bridges aren't designed to withstand worst-case scenarios," Garcia said. "We couldn't afford them if we designed that way. You have to ask if it's possible for all the worst-case scenarios to happen at the same time, and, yes, it is possible. Is it probable? No, but there are no guarantees."

For important facilities such as Tampa General Hospital, planning for a hurricane is a must.

The low-lying hospital has raised its generators to 20 feet above sea level and made plans for doctors and staff members to ride out storms inside the hospital.

Asked if Tampa General could stay in business during a Category 4 hurricane, hospital spokesman John Dunn said yes. "(But) I don't want to have to prove it."

People who plan for disasters professionally believe that Katrina offers more than scary video footage. They say it also provides a lesson for the public.

"Here we're seeing the physical manifestation of what we've been talking about for years," Vickers said. "This can happen. We're not immune from this sort of thing."

When Gispert of Hillsborough County watches video of people in Louisiana and Mississippi who rode out the hurricane in flood-prone areas, it makes him wonder why people took such risks, and how many here would do the same.

Of particular concern are the residents of 166,643 mobile homes in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, as counted by the 2000 census.

"They had 30 people die in an apartment complex in Biloxi," Gispert said. "Why were they there? They had ample warning. I mean it wasn't like that wasn't the lead story on the news for the whole weekend."