Mayor Buckhorn on first day of hurricane season: direct hit would put Tampa in "dire, dire straits"

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The Tampa Bay region hasn't seen a major hurricane—Category 3 or above—make landfall in 95 years.

It's been 11 years since a hurricane has made landfall. The last was Hurricane Wilma, a Category 5 that hit South Florida as a Category 2, one of several to blow ashore in the U.S. over two exceptionally brutal years, 2004 and 2005.

And, even though it's been just four years since the dramatic storm surge of Tropical Storm Debby took a significant toll in the Tampa Bay area, there has been something of a "hurricane drought" in the past decade.

The Atlantic Hurricane Season started June 1 and runs through November 30. Experts predict an "average" number of storms will develop over that time, but acknowledge that's it's tough to accurately estimate how many there will actually be. In recent years, they've overestimated and had to revise their predictions mid-season.

So it's easy to see why the perception that we're not vulnerable to violent storms has officials worried.

Warning against "hurricane amnesia," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and top officials with agencies that track and respond to tropical cyclones locally urged the public to come up with their own plan now — know where you'll evacuate to, how you'll prepared to help your pets and how you'll help friends, family and neighbors.

“Hurricanes are scary things. You can train to be ready for them, you can prepare for the aftermath of them, but when they hit, that is in God's hands,” Buckhorn said. "If we get hit, we are in dire, dire straits."

Flanked by National Weather Service and emergency response officials, Tampa Mayor Buckhorn talks of the importance of heeding the call to evacuate.

Flanked by National Weather Service and emergency response officials, Tampa Mayor Buckhorn talks of the importance of heeding the call to evacuate.

Several times, the mayor stressed the importance of heeding the call to evacuate should there be one.

“When you hear me say it's time to evacuate, I am not kidding," he said. "I wouldn't do that if I didn't think that it was the appropriate decision, and I would rather inconvenience you than have to come collect you in a body bag.”

So far this year there have been two named storms, and meteorologists are monitoring a disturbance that could develop into another by the middle of next week.

Even as an unpredictable storm season again looms, officials say Tampa is about as prepared as any city could possibly be for a major weather event said National Weather Service Tampa Bay meteorologist-in-charge Brian LaMarre.

The National Weather Service has designated the City of Tampa as a "StormReady" city for the mechanisms it has in place to ward off the worst potential impacts of a tropical cyclone.

To attain the designation, as all 67 Florida counties and 2,369 cities and counties and cities nationwide have, the city had to have a system that monitors local weather conditions, establish a 24-hour notice policy for the public and promote the importance of public readiness through community seminars, among other things.

“Typically, what we do, is have them ensure that the city has a 24-hour notification point, we have multiple ways to receive information from the National Weather Service, we have multiple ways of disseminating that information to make sure that the city residents are alerted to hazardous weather,” LaMarre said.

The biggest threat during hurricane season, he said, is storm surge. In the right rain, tidal and wind conditions, swelling coastal waters can push enough water inland to flood areas like downtown Tampa with up to 25 feet of water.

“The storm surge is a number-one killer of a hurricane," LaMarre said. "But it doesn't have to be a hurricane. It could be a tropical storm.”

Those who lack transportation or the means to pay to get out of town ahead of a storm can be particularly at risk, as was seen when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans in 2005. Officials said the StormReady plan includes precautions that will help such vulnerable residents safely avoid the wrath of major weather events, though it largely involved asking members of the public to engage with their neighbors to ensure mutual safety.

“One of the things that is included in this multifaceted posturing to ensure the health and fitness of our community is making certain that those persons that may not otherwise have transportation or means of getting out, we'd like to shore them up with their neighbors, making sure that their neighbors have a plan, also, to notify their emergency response agencies...and then we will coordinate some transportation,” Tampa Fire Rescue Chief Thomas Forward said.

And if the region were evacuated only to city a storm unexpectedly dissipate or turn inland before making landfall, Buckhorn said, better safe than sorry.

“This is serious stuff," he said. "This is really where you need to pay attention and trust us. And even if we tell you to evacuate and the storm veers away, I'm sorry. I'm sorry to inconvenience you. But I'd rather have you alive.”

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