Expert Begin Fretting as Hurricane Ian Intensifies

While Floridians have long prided themselves on their ability to weather frequent, intense storms emanating from the tropics, there is a rather significant line between stoicism and stupidity, and expert are warning those living in the Sunshine State to be wary of that fact.

Hurricane Ian, already a category 3 storm with room to grow, has passed over Cuba, and is already bringing rain and high winds to Miami and other parts of southern Florida.  As Ian is currently tracking, it appears as though Tampa Bay may bear the brunt of the storm, and experts are beginning to use words like “concerning” to describe the potential trouble.

Mark Luther, a marine sciences professor who lives in a St. Petersburg, Fla., neighborhood that juts into Tampa Bay, summed up his feelings about Hurricane Ian on Monday in two words:

“I’m stressed.”

Luther, an expert in the physics of oceanography at the University of South Florida who manages the region’s tide gauges, understands better than most people just how vulnerable this densely populated area is to the combination of storm and surge — and how lucky it has been to dodge a direct hit from a major hurricane for the past century.

And that wasn’t all:

The precise size and strength of Ian, as well as what path it ultimately will carve as it ambles up the Gulf of Mexico, remained uncertain on Monday evening. But this much is clear: The Tampa Bay region that lies in its crosshairs, with nearly 700 miles of shoreline and more than 3 million residents, is one of the most vulnerable places in the United States to severe flooding if a catastrophic hurricane were to score a direct hit.

Several years ago, a Boston firm that analyzes potential catastrophic damage found that the region could suffer $175 billion in damage from a storm the size of Hurricane Katrina. An earlier World Bank study called Tampa Bay — home to Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and a collection of other beach towns and low-lying communities — one of the 10 most at-risk metropolitan areas on the globe.

“The fact this could be larger than anything we’ve seen is very concerning,” said Libby Carnahan, a Florida Sea Grant agent and a founder of the Tampa Bay Climate Science Advisory Panel, formed in 2014 to help area leaders better understand the rising flood risks and find ways to become more resilient.

300,000+ Floridians are already under mandatory evacuation orders, with that number likely to increase dramatically over the course of the next several hours.