Most people in Tampa probably don’t know it, but they need to be looking very hard at Providence, Rhode Island. Providence sits at the top of Narragansett Bay. Up until 1966, hurricanes that tracked just to the west of the city – and therefore put strong southerly winds over the bay – caused severe flooding downtown. After destructive floods from the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 and Hurricane Carol in 1954, local residents decided to do something.
In 1966 the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier was finished. Now, when a hurricane approaches from the south, the barrier is closed and the city is protected. Tampa Bay looks a lot like Narragansett Bay; it opens to the south. A hurricane on a north-northwest track just to the west of Tampa-St. Petersburg will force a tremendous amount of Gulf water all the way to the north end of the bay and inundate much of the area. This worst-case scenario has happened at least four times that we know of.
On September 25, 1848, a hurricane pushed a fifteen-foot storm surge up Tampa Bay. There was not much of a town there at the time, but the event was well documented by a Major stationed at Fort Brooke, the military outpost. (See David Ludlum’s Early American Hurricanes, 1492–1870.) An event like this today would be catastrophic, flooding vast sections of the metropolitan area near the water. Another hurricane came just two weeks later, around October 11, 1848, and caused flooding as well, but the surge with the second storm was only about ten feet. Even that would be tremendously damaging today.
In 1921, a 125-mph hurricane pushed water ten to twelve feet high into the bay. This was the last major hurricane to hit the Tampa Bay area head-on. And in 1950, Hurricane Easy was well west, so that winds in Tampa were only 60 mph, but still the water rose ten feet, with waves on top of that. The population around Tampa Bay was a fraction of what it is today. Both storms would put life-threatening flooding in many populated areas if they were to happen again.
Hurricane Risk Tampa
Though hurricanes are not as likely in the Tampa Bay region as they are in Miami, the potential for loss of life is greater on the west coast. Safe areas are, at most, a few miles from the beaches of metropolitan southeast Florida. But, vast portions of the Tampa-St. Petersburg area are only a few feet above sea level and subject to much higher storm surge. Worse, the safety of high ground is many miles away over causeways that will be under water in any hurricane that produces even a modest storm surge in Tampa Bay.
Combine the extraordinary flooding threat with the relative scarcity of strong construction and hurricane protection in the Tampa-St. Petersburg region and you have the ingredients that make Tampa Bay one of America’s highest hurricane risk areas.