On Wednesday, as Hurricane Irma continued its march through the Caribbean, officials throughout the state urged residents to keep abreast of the storm's path — and to prepare for the worst without, you know, panicking about it.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman each held press conferences to update the public about sand bags, possible evacuations and sewer infrastructure.
It's unclear at this point what the storm's exact path will be, though it's expected to turn northward this weekend. And even if it looks as though Irma may jog up the east coast now, authorities won't really know how close it will come to the Tampa Bay area. But they do know the thing is hundreds of miles across and packed with powerful wind speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour. So acting like nothing is going to happen is probably a bad idea.
“This is really important: have a plan," Kriseman said. "If this storm were to track west again and come... to Tampa Bay as a category 4 or 5, having a plan could be the only thing that truly saves your life. So you need to start planning now while you have the time for what you would do if the storm starts tracking us and really threatening us in a significant and serious way.”
Even if the storm does head east, it's an estimated 500 miles wide, which means there's a good chance Florida's west coast will see winds and rain that could get intense.
Both cities have made sandbags available to residents, though apparently demand is so high some residents have had to wait for over an hour to get theirs. St. Pete public works director Claude Tankersley said the city had given out some 60,000 sandbags to protect their homes from floodwaters that will likely result from the storm. By 5:30 later that afternoon, that number jumped to 100,000.
An ongoing concern was that of the city's wastewater infrastructure during storms, which gets overwhelmed when stormwater washes into pipes and sewers. While the city is currently upgrading the system, there's no way to know what havoc the storm may cause. Tankersly said the water department is doing what it can to avoid another situation in which the city is forced to release sewage into the bay. New injection wells and other upgrades have already boosted the city's capacity by some 30 million gallons a day, and are taking other measures to prevent sewage spills, including lowering tank levels, clearing out storm drains and testing pumps and other equipment to avoid equipment malfunctions that can lead to spills.
But on the off chance it's a direct hit from a Cat 5, all bets would be off.
“If we have a Category 4 or 5 that blows through, it isn't going to matter what we've done. We're going to have, along with every other community on the west coast that gets hit with this thing, we're going to have troubles,” Kriseman said. “Our first concern is to make sure the people of our community are safe.”
Across the bay, Buckhorn issued a similar warning to that city's residents, given that, like St. Pete, Tampa has many flood-prone, low-lying areas.
He issued a local state of emergency and urged residents to heed warnings pertaining to the storm — or else.
Kriseman said Wednesday he wasn't quite prepared to issue a state of emergency, but he did say that if authorities issue an evacuation order — which would happen no less than 28 hours before landfall — that residents in corresponding zones need to heed them and go to a hurricane shelter (some local schools and churches are set up to take in evacuees). He added that residents ought to clear their yards of unsecured items as well as debris that could easily turn into deadly projectiles when picked up by the wind.
School districts throughout the area as well as the USF system have announced they are closing Thursday and Friday in order to allow for families wishing to flee to do so in a timely manner.
The extent to which the storm will affect Tampa Bay will become more apparent Wednesday evening, but so far it's not looking good for any Florida locale.