Did We Dodge A Bullet?

By Mitch Traphagen (mitch@observernews.net)

RUSKIN - In the 36 hours between the time I type the last of this article and the time that this newspaper lands on your driveway, someone, probably in North Carolina, may be looking down the barrel of a gun. A gun known as Hurricane Isabel.

Isabel is not coming to wreak havoc on Florida. Here on the Gulf Coast, we likely wonít even be aware that she has passed us by. In keeping with the gun metaphor, it looks like, once again, the Tampa Bay area dodged another bullet.

Or did we?

Perhaps no one is shooting at us.

Plywood Woes

At press time, Isabel was downgraded to a category two hurricane - while not the category five monster of last week, it is a serious storm and is definitely not something to take lightly. Until it lands, no one can know the outcome.

It is forecast to strike the east coast at a fairly shallow angle which means that everyone from the Carolinas up to the northeastern states is watching and preparing for the worst.

Nowhere are those preparations more earnest than on the outer banks of North Carolina. Houses and businesses are being boarded up and evacuation plans are ready.

Those preparations, however, are hitting unusually hard in the pocketbook as the price of plywood has soared and availability has nearly hit rock bottom.

The reason, according to the Oregon based trade magazine Random Lengths, is the war in Iraq. According to a recent story, the U.S. Government ordered nearly 800,000 sheets of plywood for use in Iraq. Most of those sheets are used for tent floors, roughly 200,000 square feet per camp.

For those preparing for the worst, a short supply of plywood is not good news. Plywood, of course, is the main source of defense against ravaging winds.

The situation is, however, similar to hurricane tracking itself. Seemingly isolated events collide to form a final result, be it a hurricane steering away from us on a passing weather system or rising plywood prices from a war.

Unfortunately, certainty is rare until after the collision has occurred.

A Hurricane Free Zone?

Back in Tampa Bay, the incessant rains have slowed and sunshine is once again becoming the star of the Sunshine State.

No one, except for homebuilders, is lining up to buy large quantities of plywood.

Just recently tropical storm Henri made landfall directly over the Tampa Bay area - few people were even aware as the remnants of the eye passed in the early morning hours.

Maybe thereís nothing to worry about. After all, weíre not dodging bullets if no one is shooting at us.

Is Tampa Bay hurricane proof? "No," said meteorologist Ryan Sharp at the National Weather Service Office in Ruskin. "We are definitely not hurricane proof."

According to Sharp and other meteorologists, however, Tampa is in a reasonably good position. A hurricane coming off the Atlantic would typically have to be picked up by a weather system known as a trough to get pushed over to Tampa Bay.

That is an atmospheric dance that requires excellent timing.

Another point in Tampaís favor is that most tropical systems that develop in or near the Gulf of Mexico donít have time to develop a really nasty disposition before hitting the coast.

But, of course, whether it is hurricanes or the skyrocketing price of plywood, things have a way of colliding to form the worst possible result.

Atlantic Hurricanes Wonít Hit Us

One of those "worst possible results" occurred 43 years ago.

On August 29, 1960 a tropical wave blew off the coast of Africa. Within days that wave grew and became known as Hurricane Donna, a category four hurricane with a particularly bad attitude.

Not unlike Isabel, Donna moved west-northwest, skimming the Leeward Islands, cut south of most of the Bahamas, and made a beeline for the Florida Keys.

Leaving destruction in her wake in the Middle Keys, Donna moved up the Gulf Coast and turned inland just south of the Tampa Bay area. She was still a hurricane as she traveled over Lakeland. She re-entered the Atlantic, struck North Carolina, bounced back into the ocean and struck New England.

Other than Hurricane Andrew, Donna was the strongest, most destructive hurricane to hit Florida. In her wake, eleven Floridians had died out of a total of 150 deaths.

Donna is the only hurricane on record to hit Florida, the Mid-Atlantic states and New England with hurricane force winds.

Sustained winds were measured at 128 mph in the Keys, 120 mph in North Carolina, and 95 mph in Rhode Island. In each case, the gusts were much, much higher.

Donna was one of the biggest hurricanes to hit Florida. And contrary to some ideas about where Atlantic storms tend to go, it was the Gulf side that she hit after beginning in the far Atlantic.

While meteorologists are infinitely better at predicting the path of storms, there is nothing that has happened in the past 43 years that would prevent another Donna.

And due to the massive population growth and coastal development, she would have a lot more to hit today on the "quiet" Gulf coast.

Are Gulf Storms Weaklings?

Shortly after mentioning that most storms that develop in the Gulf of Mexico wonít grow to category five strength, Meteorologist Sharp then added, "Of course Camille formed just south of Cuba."

Yes, that is correct, one of the deadliest storms to hit the United States formed just a few hundred miles south of the Tampa Bay area.

In this case, the atmospheric dance took Camille on a deadly raid of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

With a sentiment that is again becoming increasingly common, many scoffed at the forecasts of storm surge and high winds back in August of 1969.

Those who survived the 200 mph winds, however, knew otherwise. Entire parts of the Gulf coast were erased on that day. A storm surge of more than 22 feet rolled over the area without regard to belief or skepticism. Beach front hotels were not just damaged, many simply disappeared, leaving their foundations and little else.

Some consider Hurricane Camille to be the largest single destructive event to have occurred in the history of our country. Even today the death toll is uncertain, although numbers range as high as 225 dead. At least 50 people were never found.

Wildlife, pets and farm animals drowned in the storm surge. Rattlesnakes, rats and fire ants emerged from the rubble to torment those searching for survivors. There was nothing pretty about it.

And it all started in our backyard and it is only on sheer luck that the story headlines of the day did not include the word Tampa.

Ground Zero

Whether it is sheer luck, the Grace of God, or anything else, it didnít happen here. Sometime over the months, years, or even centuries, it likely will.

According to NWS meteorologist Barry Goldsmith, a category five storm could bring to a surge of up to 22 feet to the Tampa Bay area. If that occurred, downtown Tampa would become our own version of Ground Zero. Ruskin, Apollo Beach, Sun City Center, Riverview and all of south county would be stricken. It would not be pretty.

Tampa Bay, however, does not seem to be the target that the Carolinaís have been. We do seem to have a bit of good fortune geographically.

All it would take, though, is a slight twist in the atmospheric dance to change that fortune, to darken our skies, to write a new page of horrifying history.

We are not so well positioned to allow us to become skeptical, to pretend that it wonít, that it canít, happen here.

The weather is here and it is good. September and October, however, tend to busy months for tropical weather activity in the Gulf of Mexico. It is not a time for skepticism.

The National Weather Service and the American Red Cross provide the following tips for disaster planning:

  • Store a three day supply of water, one gallon per person per day.

  • Store food that wonít spoil.

  • Store one change of clothing and shoes per person.

  • Have an adequate supply of prescription medicines on hand.

  • Have one blanket or sleeping bag per person.

  • Have a first aid kit.

  • Have a battery powered radio and flashlight along with extra batteries.

  • Keep an extra set of car keys, cash and a credit card available.

  • The most important tip, however, is to heed warnings. If you are asked to leave your home, do so immediately.

Click Here for the National Hurricane Center

Click Here for the National Weather Service Tampa Bay

Click Here for Tampa Bay Radar Loop

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