Thursday, November 23, 2017
News Roundup

Romano: When it comes to hurricanes, is Tampa Bay just lucky or is it overdue?

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Twelve hours later, the sky was blue and the line to get into Waffle House stretched from the front entrance around two walls and past the loading door in the back of the building.

This is how we cope with hurricanes in Tampa Bay. Every decade or so we get ourselves worked into a frenzy, and then we exhale with a plate of hash browns, preferably scattered, smothered and covered.

"When Waffle House opens up, the world is right again," said Pete Burkes, who waited outside the Safety Harbor location for two hours to bring hot food to his disabled mother. "That's the truth."

For the most part, Hurricane Irma spared the bay area overnight Sunday. Just like Hurricane Charley did when it veered off course in 2004. Just like Hurricane Georges did in 1998. Just like hurricanes Elena (1985), Frederic (1979) and Donna (1960).

The map of major storm strikes on this side of the world is lengthy and impressive. From Corpus Christi to Houston in Texas. From New Orleans to Mobile on the Gulf Coast. From Fort Myers to the Keys to Homestead in South Florida, and then up the coast to South Carolina, North Carolina and Long Island.

Yet Tampa Bay, a large and vulnerable target, hasn't been dealt a major blow in nearly a century.

So does that make us lucky, or overdue?

The correct answer, of course, is yes.

We all understand the inconvenience of proper hurricane preparation can be considerable. Either you're fleeing hundreds of miles or spending hundreds of dollars. And as storms pass us completely or offer just glancing shots, there might be a tendency to consider these warnings, um, overblown.

That would be regrettable. And potentially fatal.

It's true that Tampa Bay has geography in its favor when it comes to avoiding hurricanes. A storm that hits the east coast of Florida will dramatically weaken if it crosses the state (Hurricane Jeanne in 2004) before approaching us. And hurricanes that enter the Gulf of Mexico do not usually take the right-hand turn (Hurricane Charley in 2004) needed to strike Florida's west coast.

That leaves a storm such as Irma that goes directly north after passing Cuba, with its lone eye focused on Tampa Bay. History says it's a long shot, but this past weekend proves it's not impossible.

Irma was on just that sort of track until a cold front shifted the hurricane's path ever so slightly, according to Jonathan Belles, a weather.com meteorologist, and landfall arrived closer to Naples.

"We got very, very, very lucky with Irma; literally just a difference of a few hours changed things," said Belles, a St. Pete native and FSU graduate. "So, yes, luck does play a part in this, but I'm hesitant to say that because you don't want people to develop this sense of, 'Hey, we missed another one.' You don't want anyone taking the next one for granted."

If you're anything like me, you've lived through more hurricane watches and warnings than you can possibly remember. And you've learned not to panic, and not to overreact.

But if you were paying attention, you also saw what Hurricane Agnes did to Panama City in 1972, what Andrew did to South Florida in 1992, and what Wilma did to Marco Island in 2005.

Good fortune should be appreciated, but never counted on.

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