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Tampa region readies for first major hurricane in 96 years

September 9, 2017 at 6:23 PM EDT
It has been nearly a century since a major hurricane struck the Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg area, Florida’s second-most populous region with a population of 2.5 million. But on Saturday, as Hurricane Irma moved toward the state, preparations were in full swing in Tampa and central Florida. NewsHour's P.J. Tobia, who is on the scene in Tampa, joins Hari Sreenivasan with the latest.
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HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND: After the Miami-Fort Lauder metropolitan area, Tampa St. Petersburg is Florida’s most populous area, with 2.5 million residents.

The Tampa area, lying on the state’s western, Gulf of Mexico coast, has not sustained a direct hit from a hurricane since 1921.

But today, in Tampa and throughout central Florida, storm preparations were in full swing, as Newshour Weekend’s P.J. Tobia reports.

P.J. TOBIA, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEEKEND: Boarding up, and moving out. This is not a drill.

MICHAEL O’ROURKE, HOMEOWNER: This morning’s been all about preparation, we’re in a mandatory evacuation zone. And so we have to get out of here.

TOBIA: Long-time Tampa resident Michael O’Rourke has been fortifying his house ahead of the coming storm.

O’ROURKE: Boarding up, sandbagging, moving furniture, musical equipment from downstairs to upstairs, wrapping as much stuff up as we possibly can and just preparing to leave.

TOBIA: A few minutes from O’Rourke’s house, downtown Tampa, normally buzzing, is a ghost town.

MAYOR BOB BUCKHORN, TAMPA: This is a violent deadly weather occurrence that stretches the entire length of the state. We just hope it moves quickly.

TOBIA: Mayor Bob Buckhorn says Irma poses massive risks for his city. We spoke in Tampa’s emergency operations headquarters.

BUCKHORN: Tampa hasn’t been hit in 90 years, but if we we do take a direct hit, a Category 3 in downtown Tampa would put my office 15 feet underwater.

TOBIA: Over the past decade, Tampa has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on waterfront development, land threatened by Irma’s storm surge. The mayor says construction standards have improved since Florida’s most destructive storm, 1992’s Hurricane Andrew.

BUCKHORN: People want to live on the water. It’s why they come to Florida. Building codes have increased significantly since Hurricane Andrew. The construction process now is much better than it used to be. Elevations are required above 100 year flood zones.

TOBIA: Tampa is a 90-minute drive west of Orlando, the central Florida corridor where so many evacuees from south Florida have gone.

The Ryan family, from the Miami suburb of Doral, managed to book rooms at an Embassy Suites in Orlando. Business executive Chris Ryan said he wasn’t taking any chances with his wife and two kids.

CHRIS RYAN, EVACUEE: I was living in Miami for over 20 years and never had experience of a Category 4 or 5 direct hit in Miami. I’ve been through a few hurricanes but nothing at this strength and having been hit directly into Miami, and I know people that lived there Andrew, and I have family that live in Houston. And so they were insisting that we leave.

TOBIA: Ross left his home in Miamia with a few belongings and his dog.

ROSS, EVACUEE: You gotta err on the side of caution. We got a big storm coming.

TOBIA: The closest hotel room he could find is in Georgia and it’ll cost him more than $300 a night.

ROSS: Hotels, you can’t find anything. I was on Expedia trying to book a flight, and it’ll tell you how many people are on. There’s 2000 people searching this hotel right now, and I’m like, you just keep going.

Tobia: Central Florida wasn’t far enough north for Becky Dykema. Her family let their home near Melbourne for the cheapest hotel they could find, in Alabama.

BECKY DYKEMA, EVACUEE: We’re leaving here to evacuate from the Hurricane Irma, to get safer away, because we live in a trailer park.

TOBIA: Today, leaving Orlando by air was not an option. The city’s airport shut down. Tourist attractions, like Disney World, closed.

An hour east of Orlando, on the Atlantic Coast, officials moved to their highest level of mobilization.

ROB WALKER, BREVARD COUNTY EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT OFFICIAL: Bite about that.

TOBIA: Brevard county’s emergency management center is housed in a 50-year-old building. Officials there will ride out the storm, sleeping by their work stations.

WALKER: Everybody is just gonna grab some floor, we brought sleeping bags.

TOBIA: Tampa’s stunning waterfront draws millions of visitors and the occasional super bowl. But as Irma takes direct aim at Florida’s third largest city, this bay also becomes its greatest threat.

Tampa Fire Chief Tom Forward says the system of bridges and causeways that connect the city might flood, to deadly effect.

TOM FORWARD, TAMPA FIRE CHIEF: When the bridges shut down, people cannot move any further, and the last place you want to be is on a major highway, byway, or thoroughfare, in a parking lot with no movement, and no one to come save you. And at that point, there is very little that anyone is going to be able to do for you, you’ve gotten yourself in a situation where flooding is apparent and actually occurring. That’s a very, very dire situation.

TOBIA: Chief Forward says that while the storm hits, emergency responders will likely be grounded.

FORWARD:
Once the storm is right on top of us, and we start getting winds, especially sustained winds in excess of 39 miles per hour, once they move into 40 mile per hour winds, our emergency responders and resources are not going to be moving out into these conditions. So that’s why the public adheres to the evacuation orders, get out of the area as quick as they can.

HARI SREENIVASAN: P.J. Tobia joins me now from Tampa. P.J., you covered Hurricane Harvey just a couple weeks ago. Residents there were told not to evacuate. Is there a sense in Florida that that was a wake-up call?

P.J. TOBIA: Absolutely. A lot of people here talk about how Harvey was a wake-up call for them. They wanted to get started early and prepare often for this storm, so much so that today, a homeowner we spoke to had trouble finding plywood to secure his home with. He talked about feting the plywood as if it was some sort of black market affair, and he talked about having a contact he could arrange for him to buy some plywood cash only. The stores, Home Depot, Lowes, the big department stores, hardware stores, were all out of that sort of thing. So people did heed the lessons of Harvey, they took it to heart and got prepared as soon as possible. A lot of people also left town a couple days ago. and I would remind you that the evacuation order, we’re in the middle of it now, but mandatory evacuation isn’t until 8 a.m. tomorrow morning so people really heeded the call and took the advice of Harvey to heart.

HARI SREENIVASAN: P.J., as you stand there in front of Tampa Bay and I know you talked to the mayor today, what are some of the infrastructure concerns that they have?

P.J. TOBIA: Yeah, well, part of the challenge of this place is the beautiful bay that surrounds it. One of the biggest hospitals in the state, Tampa General, it’s the area’s level 1 trauma center, it’s a very important medical facilities in this area. It’s built on an island, on Davis Island, and the only way on it or off it off that island to the hospital is a series of causeways, bridges that go over the bay. The mayor assured me that the island could be self sufficient if and when those causeways flood, and that they have enough fuel, food and generators to subsist for a couple of weeks without contact with the mainland. but it does speak to the specific challenges that Tampa Bay is undergoing as this storm makes way for it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: P.J., you and our crew traveled pretty much across the state this morning. What did you see?

P.J. TOBIA: Well, roads are empty, people, anyone who wanted to get out pretty much has or is in the process of doing so now. It’s not the kind of mass exodus that we saw a little bit earlier in the week. Again, the lessons of Harvey being learned and taken to heart. But a lot of store shelves are empty, most gas stations are closed. When you can get to a gas station, a few pumps will usually be closed, meaning they are out of fuel. And when you do try to fuel up, it takes a long time, showing that the tank at that pump is nearing empty.

HARI SREENIVASAN: P.J. Tobia joining us from Tampa today, stay safe.

P.J. TOBIA: Thanks Hari.

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