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As Hurricane Ian approaches, a project to save Tampa from flooding is far from complete

Tampa has been undergoing major infrastructure upgrades to protect the vulnerable city from flooding, but as Hurricane Ian barrels toward Florida’s west coast, the project is still years from completion.

The city is in the early phases of a roughly $39 million project to improve drainage and reduce flooding in the Seminole Heights neighborhood. Construction is only about 30% done, said Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.

The three-year project to build a major stormwater conveyance system began late last year. It was on schedule before Ian threatened to undo its progress this week with forecasted wind speeds topping 130 mph, prolonged storm surges of up to 15 feet expected in some areas, heavy rainfall and possible tornadoes.

“There’s still a significant amount of work really remaining,” Sullivan said. “And without that work completed, exacerbation of flooding and heavy rain is just potentially catastrophic.”

A man loads wood in his vehicle outside a Home Depot store in preparation for the arrival of Hurricane Ian in Tampa, Fla., on Sept. 27, 2022.
A man loads wood in his vehicle outside a Home Depot store in preparation for the arrival of Hurricane Ian in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday.Ricardo Arduengo / AFP – Getty Images

The Tampa Bay area is particularly vulnerable to storm surge due to its low-lying geography, said state climatologist David Zierden and Dennis Smith, an urban planner and professor at Florida State University’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning.

In fact, the World Bank ranked Tampa as one of the top 10 coastal cities around the globe at highest risk of damaging floods in 2013.

That greatly threatens waterfront roads and development, Smith said, adding that unlike other parts of Florida, like Miami, storm surges from the Tampa Bay area can go much further inland.

“The potential area of inundation for the same intensity storm would be greater in the Tampa Bay area,” he said.

This is a major concern as Ian, which strengthened into a Category 3 storm early Tuesday as it made landfall in western Cuba, is expected to directly hit Tampa Bay as soon as Wednesday, U.S. officials said.

The region has not borne the brunt of a major hurricane since 1921. The National Weather Service said that the unnamed storm, believed to be a Category 3, led to at least eight confirmed deaths and cost $5 million. It was the most destructive hurricane in the area since 1848.

Since 1921, the region’s population has grown from roughly 400,000 people to 3.8 million, and the number of buildings has either tripled or quadrupled, Sullivan said.

“The impact to humankind is going to be much more significant,” he said.

The low-lying coastal area is also home to St. Petersburg, which is on a large peninsula that is separated from the mainland by Tampa Bay. Three major bridges that provide access between the area’s two most-populous cities are also at risk from major storm surges, Sullivan said.

“The approaches to all of our bridges are generally right at sea level,” he said. “So any storm surge would make the approaches pretty much to all three bridges nearly impossible.”

Workers from Specialized Performance Delivered 24:7 board up the windows on the historical Henry B. Plant Hall on the campus of the University of Tampa ahead of Hurricane Ian on Sept. 27, 2022, in Tampa, Fla.
Workers from Specialized Performance Delivered 24:7 board up the windows on the historical Henry B. Plant Hall on the University of Tampa campus ahead of Hurricane Ian on Tuesday in Tampa, Fla.Chris O’Meara / AP

Tampa committed to upgrading essential infrastructure after tropical storm Irma rendered pumping stations powerless for a week in 2017, but the storm ultimately left the area largely unscathed.

In July, the city said it invested in 64 portable generators and has 75,000 gallons of fuel in storage, which it said could last five days if there is a power outage at a wastewater treatment plant.

The city also recently outfitted its emergency response teams with drones and improved the communications system that public safety personnel use post-storm.  

Most significantly, last fall, Tampa began improving drainage issues by widening roads and making pipes larger. But Sullivan said its current drainage structures will not be able to handle the sudden and heavy rainfall that is on the way.

“We got a bit of a head start,” he said, “but quite frankly, I don’t think anyone can be prepared for a Category 3 making a direct hit in our region.”

Once the project is complete, the city will be able to manage stormwater and mitigate flooding “much, much better,” said Vik Bhide, Tampa’s mobility director, who oversees the city’s stormwater and transportation.

Bhide said the city has ensured that the existing stormwater system, even through the work zone, “will function as designed.” 

“Ideally, we would have wanted to have this project in place to deal with situations like Hurricane Ian,” he said. “We’re hoping for the best, but we’re relatively well-prepared, as prepared as can be with this work zone.”

Statewide, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has declared an emergency, and evacuations have been ordered for about 2.5 million residents from Pinellas County down to the Fort Myers area.

Sept. 27, 202203:15

Parts of the state may be without power from three days to a week, Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said at a Tuesday morning news conference.

“The Tampa Bay area hasn’t seen this type of storm in decades, if not 100 years,” said Rick Davis, a senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Tampa office.

“All the threats that hurricanes can have,” Davis said, “we are definitely in the high to extreme category in all these threats.”

Tampa Bay is in a “favorable area” to avoid major hurricanes, Davis said. When a storm forms in the Atlantic and steering currents are weak, it will often turn to hit the east coast of Florida or miss the state completely. And if the steering current is strong, he said, the systems usually strike Texas or the Gulf of Mexico.

But not this week.

“We’re sitting right in the middle of the steering current,” Davis said.