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Will we heed storm forecasts for the Big One?

False alarms jade the public, but our dreaded storm could be next.

By THOMAS LAKE, Times Staff Writer
Published August 16, 2007


We have entered the height of hurricane season, the two-month span in which we are told that a terrible storm is most likely to boil up from the Atlantic and destroy us all.

In case we forget, the television reminds us, all day, every day, with bright-colored maps and computer animation.

On Tuesday night, CNN's Anderson Cooper told us that Tropical Storm Dean had "Florida in its sights," even though it was still more than 1,800 miles from Miami. Surprise: The predicted path shifted south a few hours later.

This endless alarm has begun to remind some locals of a certain shrill-voiced shepherd boy.

"You can only warn somebody so many times," said Ric Powers, 47, a jet mechanic in St. Pete Beach, "before they start closing their ears."

Eighty-six years have passed since a major hurricane struck the Tampa Bay area, a streak of good fortune unmatched in Florida and inexplicable to scientists.

According to Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, location-based statistical models predict that a Category 3 storm should hit here every 21 years.

21.

42.

63.

84.

Ticktock.

"It's not if," said Tom Malone, operations commander for the St. Pete Beach Fire Department. "It's when."

But the long string of false alarms -- including last year, when 17 storms were predicted, but only nine took shape and most missed our mainland -- has hurt forecasters' credibility.

Hurricane Charley seemed to threaten the Tampa Bay area in August 2004. Many people, including Roger Brown, a 57-year-old medical equipment salesman from Tampa, evacuated toward Orlando.

Then Charley missed the bay.

And clobbered Orlando.

Among residents of high-risk hurricane zones surveyed this year by the Harvard School of Public Health, nearly a third said that if government officials told them to evacuate the area, they would refuse. That's a significant increase from last year.

The scoffers do not include Tom Jacobs, 73, a retired dentist in Hudson. He will bolt at the first sign of a hurricane. His Cadillac CTS always has a full tank of gas.

"That'll get me to Georgia, at least," he said.

Then you have Ciara Carinci, a 52-year-old artist in Gulfport, who dismisses the radar with a roll of her eyes.

"Hurricane season," she said Wednesday, waving her arms in mock horror.

But you remember the end of the shepherd-boy story.

It involves an actual wolf.

Times news researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Thomas Lake can be reached at tlake@sptimes.com or (727) 992-8665.