ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – As monster Hurricane Irma buzz-sawed its way up Florida's Gulf Coast, it looked for several hours like the heavily populated Tampa Bay area could face catastrophic wind damage and flooding from the first major storm to roar ashore there in 96 years.
There was good reason to worry. Since 1921, when about 120,000 people lived there, the region has added three million residents and tens of thousands of new homes along low-lying waterfront property.
The storm left Tampa and St. Petersburg with only power outages and downed tree limbs to contend with. But many are wondering: Was Irma merely a dress rehearsal for The Big One?
Study after study has shown the Tampa region is among the world's most vulnerable when it comes to major storms. Yet so far it has failed to take some key precautions, such as burying power lines, ending the practice of filling and building in wetlands and putting brakes on residential development.
"Floridians live for the day," said Florida historian Gary Mormino of St. Petersburg. "You come here for paradise, and you don't want to pay for ensuring paradise for the future. We dodged the big one this time, but there will be a reckoning someday."
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn told an AP reporter Sunday morning that he expected his Davis Islands home to flood and was bracing for 5 to 8 feet (1.5 to 2.4 meters) of storm surge. "I think our day has come," he said in a somber voice.
By Monday, his tone was giddily cheerful, after his city and home weren't destroyed as predicted.
"We continue to acknowledge that our number will come up at some point. We can't go another 90 years without a direct hit. We came close last night. I look at this as an opportunity to perfect our plan," he said.
Davis Islands, where Buckhorn and his family live, are a prime example of the freewheeling development ethic of the region — and the entire state. Initially, there were two small islands, but an enterprising developer in the 1920s dredged the bay and filled them in with mud, then planned a resort-like community with lavish Mediterranean-style homes. Today, a mix of homes and condos stands there. It's where baseball player Derek Jeter lives in a 30,000-square foot waterfront home. Also on the island: Tampa General Hospital.
"Why would you put a hospital on an island?" said Mormino. "It's insane, but it hasn't failed in 97 years."
To be sure, Tampa General says it has a plan for storms and can withstand them. But recent storms, such as Irma and even Harvey in Texas, make policymakers wonder what more can be done now that the area's packed with people and infrastructure. Buckhorn, a Democrat, says that while he's not willing to blame Irma on climate change, he believes a serious discussion about climate change and rising seas must happen soon.
"We're a low lying area, a city on the water with 100-year-old infrastructure and 2017 growth patterns," he said. "We live in Florida where people want to live on the water. None of that I can change. I'm trying to be an advocate for investment in infrastructure."
A 2013 World Bank study that ranked cities according to their vulnerability to major storms placed Tampa at number seven among all cities in the world. A report released in June by CoreLogic, a global property information firm, said nearly 455,000 Tampa Bay homes could be damaged by hurricane storm surges, the most in any major U.S. metro area except Miami and New York City. And rebuilding all those homes could cost $80.6 billion, the report said.
In 2016, the risk-management consultancy Karen Clark & Co. said Tampa Bay is the nation's most vulnerable metro area to storm surge flooding caused by a once-in-century hurricane. The Boston-based firm said Tampa Bay acts as a "large funnel" for surges, forcing water into narrow channels and bayous with nowhere else to go.
And that's what was forecast for a several-hour spell Sunday morning: catastrophic storm surges, hours of 130 mph (209 kph) winds and massive destruction.
Instead, the Tampa Bay region was hit with tropical storm-force winds and 4 ½ inches (10 centimeters) of rain.
Irma is also making residents reflect on what they did right, and wrong — and what they'll do next time a storm swirls toward the region.
"We're talking about things that we would do differently, with food and packing and things to bring and things not to bring," said Nancy Schiaparelli, who fled with her husband and pets from their home in an evacuation zone in St. Petersburg, to a hotel about three miles away. She now wishes they'd brought canned food and not packaged food, fewer board games and more DVDs, and "probably overdid it for the pets."
"Too much stuff. We have a dog, a cat and a guinea pig ... But what if we couldn't get back home? You just never know how bad it's going to be," said the 61-year-old as she packed up her SUV on Monday in the hotel parking lot.
Patrick Salerno, a 70-year-old retiree, evacuated from North Redington Beach to a hotel. He's not so sure he will evacuate next time because he doesn't think the forecasters get the storm's path right, anyway.
"After watching Texas, everyone was afraid not to evacuate. But seeing a lot of people die and a lot of damage, the magnitude of that storm, I guess people figured, better safe than sorry," he shrugged, as he waited in his truck to get back onto the barrier island where he lived. "In the old days, we'd just wait for the storms to come and get plenty of beer."
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