Local Pinellas officials talk hurricanes

Sep 12, 2011

The following article was posted to the TBN.com news website on September 12, 2011:

Local Pinellas officials talk hurricanes

By Suzette Porter

Hurricane season in the Atlantic basin is past the halfway mark, but local officials say the riskiest months are still ahead for people living on the west coast of Florida.

They’re also reminding residents of the upcoming 90th anniversary of the only hurricane to make landfall in Pinellas County. The Tampa Bay Hurricane of 1921, aka the Tarpon Springs hurricane, made landfall on Oct. 25, packing sustained winds of 75 mph. It was the third hurricane, second major hurricane and final storm of the 1921 season.

Five people died – some reports say 10, and $5 million in damage was reported – more than $100 million in today’s dollars.

Historical accounts tell of the devastating affect the storm had on the citrus industry. Every pier along the water was damaged or destroyed in St. Petersburg. Bridges were severely damaged, including the one from St. Petersburg to Pass-a-Grille, the bridge from Clearwater to Clearwater Island, as it was called back then; and part of the Indian Rocks Bridge was destroyed.

Local hurricane experts took time to reflect on that historic event during the Hurricane eTownHall meeting Sept. 7. The panel included Sally Bishop, Pinellas County Emergency Management director; Robert Ballou, division chief of emergency preparedness and management for St. Petersburg Fire Rescue; Lynn McChristian, Florida representative Insurance Information Institute; Daniel Noah, warning coordinator and meteorologist for National Weather Service in Ruskin; and Tom Iovino, moderator, Pinellas County Communications.

Bishop said the 1921 storm – the first and only one ever to hit Pinellas – was a late season storm, coming in late October and making landfall near Tarpon Springs. Maximum wind speeds recorded in Tarpon Springs were 100 mph.

“It was the worst-case scenario,” she said.

Hurricanes that come ashore in northern areas of the county drive all the water into Tampa Bay. Bishop said the storm did a lot of damage, but due to the low population, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it would be if a similar event happened today.

Ballou talked about photos of St. Petersburg of flooding 11 feet above the water line.

“It’s hard to believe water could rise that high,” he said.

McChristian said more people and property are located in harm’s way than ever before. She said it was important to take stock of insurance requirements. She said people outside of normal flood zones might want to consider coverage for a worst-case scenario. She recommended a website, floodsmart.gov for more information. Bishop said 600,000 county residents live in an evacuation zone and low-lying areas vulnerable to flooding.

Tropical storms form more often in the Gulf of Mexico in the late season. Cold fronts coming in from the north often steer those storms toward Florida’s west coast. Pinellas County officials timed this second annual Hurricane eTownHall to coincide with peak of the season and the beginning of the late-season when the risk increases for county residents.

It was one more chance to spread their message about planning, preparing and staying ready to follow instructions if tropical weather threatens Tampa Bay.

Bishop said the time to prepare is not when a storm is on its way. She said everything should be done well in advance, so when the order is given to evacuate, people would be ready to go and they would have done all they could to protect their homes and property.

She reminded coastal residents that storm surge is the No. 1 danger during a hurricane. She said nothing could withstand walls of water coming in waves along the coast. Evacuation from those areas is the safe course of action.

People who live in non-evacuation zones also need to do all they can to prepare to ride out the storm well in advance and have all the supplies they need to survive for at least a week on their own. Bishop says if the worst were to happen, it could be days before even the main roads were cleared and weeks before streets were open in neighborhoods.

Ballou said it was important that county residents understand the risks, have a plan and be ready to put that plan into action when needed.

“Don’t gamble with your life and your loved ones’ lives,” Bishop said. “Have a plan, don’t gamble.”

Bishop talked about reports of people complaining about being ordered to evacuate and then the worst doesn’t happen. She said it was hard to understand why people would complain about that.

“I think it would be good if we ordered people to evacuate and it turns out they didn’t need to,” she said.

Season recap

The peak season for hurricanes in the Atlantic basin is August through October with maximum activity in early to mid-September. Seven of this year’s 14 named storms formed in August. Two – Irene and Katia became hurricanes – the first two of the season. Both strengthened into major hurricanes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted 14 to 19 named storms could form this season with seven to 10 becoming hurricanes and three to five strengthening into major hurricanes, Category 3, 4 or 5. Dr. William Gray, professor emeritus at the Colorado State University, and Dr. Phil Klotzbach, CSU research scientist, said residents living in coastal areas should prepare for 16 named storms, nine hurricanes and as many as five major hurricanes.

The long-term seasonal average, 1944-2010, is 11 named storms, six hurricanes and two major hurricanes. Hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.

For more information

Pinellas County’s website, www.pinellascounty.org, has a wealth of information about hurricanes and preparedness, including evacuation zones and registration for special needs residents. A video replay of the eTownHall and hurricane eSeries also is available.

Additional information about hurricanes, how to prepare and the latest tropical weather forecast is available at www.TBNweekly.com.

Find this article here:  http://www.tbnweekly.com/pinellas_county/content_articles/091211_pco-04.txt