Though the effects of Tropical Storm Debby were minimal on campus, its week-long soaking of the west coast of Florida underscores the real dangers of hurricane season.
USF St. Petersburg’s waterfront location, though picturesque, puts the campus particularly at risk.
“[Tampa] has a shallow bay. A hurricane coming in that direction will force a lot of water over land due to winds literally pushing the water over it,” said Tom Scherberger, the current USFSP Director of Communications and former hurricane editor at the Tampa Bay Times. “Everyone would have to evacuate, it would be too dangerous to have everyone stay here. The dorms are not sturdy enough, the whole campus and area would be underwater anyway.”
Every year an average of eight hurricanes develop in the waters off the southeastern United States during hurricane season, which lasts from June 1 through Nov. 30. And even though St. Petersburg hasn’t been hit by a hurricane since 1921, Scherberger said students should be aware of evacuation procedures and stock up on essential items, such as water, non-perishable foods, batteries, flashlights and a first aid kit.
The last hurricane to make landfall in the area—known as the 1921 Tampa Bay Hurricane as it predated the A to Z naming convention—peaked as a category 4 storm with sustained winds up to 140 mph. When it hit Tarpon Springs, it brought with it 75 mph winds and a 7-foot storm surge, killing three to eight and causing $128 million in damage (adjusted for inflation).
The resultant storm surge from a category 4 landing at Indian Rocks Beach would split Pinellas County in half, according to researchers at the USF College of Marine Sciences. Much of Largo, Pinellas Park, downtown St. Petersburg and the barrier islands would be underwater, turning the middle of St. Petersburg and south Pinellas into an island.
Even a Category 2 storm could be catastrophic, sinking coastal and low-lying areas in the west county. Even the relatively mild Debby made it possible for canoeists and dead manatees to float down Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa.
Scherberger recommends students arrange to evacuate to a friend or family member’s home outside the evacuation zone, and only use emergency shelters as a “last resort.”
“I know you should stock up on water and batteries for flashlights, and tape windows and glass doors,” said Ev Malcolm, a graduate journalism student. “But no, I’m probably not prepared. I don’t have any of that stuff right now.”
If severe weather does hit, USF St. Petersburg officials will post emergency notices at usfsp.edu and notify the campus community by email and text message alerts. Once an evacuation is ordered, all campus building—including residence halls—will close.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott knows the lull in devastating hurricane activity has made the public unfocused on preparing for the worst these storms have to dish out.
“In recent years, our state has been blessed to have dodged major hurricanes,” Scott told attendees at the governor’s hurricane conference in May. “While good for our state, it also means many of Florida’s citizens, visitors and businesses may not fully appreciate the need to prepare for a storm.”
Hurricane Elena, which brought severe floods in 1985, was the last storm to bring significant damage to the Tampa Bay area.
Photo by Christopher Guinn.