Tampa's Hurricane Luck: Historical Perspectives

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TheAustinMan
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Tampa's Hurricane Luck: Historical Perspectives

#1 Postby TheAustinMan » Tue Aug 13, 2019 10:29 pm

Although the return period for major hurricanes in the Tampa Bay area is expected to be around 30 years, the region has been quite lucky when it comes to intense landfalling storms. In fact, only one major hurricane has ever crossed into Pinellas, Hillsborough, or Manatee counties—the counties that border Tampa Bay. That was in 1921, when a Category 4 hurricane made landfall on Tarpon Springs, bringing a 10-12 ft storm surge into the bay and killing eight. In fact, after 1946, only one hurricane's center crossed into one of those three counties: Irma.

The Tampa hurricane shield has been a trope on weather forums for the past few decades, so I wanted to look back at old archives to see if local papers had anything to say on the matter, and as it turns out this has been a long running idea.

  • Shelton Matlack, writing for The Tampa Morning Tribune in a column on March 20, 1910, boasted of the Tampa's advantages, among them its "Immunity From Severe Gales" which headlined the column. Matlack asserted the region's geography was in and of itself protection from hurricanes. Even over a century ago—before World War I, the sinking of the Titanic, the invention of sliced bread—it was noted that "time and time again has this wonderful protective influence been exercised in Tampa's benefit, for storms of the greatest fury have hurled themselves at the city... only to turn away and lash their fury out in open seas." At the time, the worst storm in the city's history was a state-crossing Category 1 hurricane.
    >>> "In a more superstitious age, it might be asserted that some god was exerting his influenced in this city's favor, that some potent spell had been cast over the warring elements to make them still." —Tampa Morning Tribune, March 20, 1910
  • Upheld by local forecasters, the idea persisted. On May 8, 1912, the Tampa Morning Tribune asserted that "the probability of one reaching [Tampa] is remote and of infrequent occurrence" and keyed in on a lack of storms in the region, observing that "part of the Florida West Coast in which Tampa is situated escapes [hurricanes'] fury."
  • Sometimes, the idea went a little too far. Citing the Manatee Journal, the Tampa Daily Times on August 28, 1915, declared the entire state immune from severe storms, suggesting that "residents of Florida may well felicitate themselves" on that notion.
  • The 1928 Okechobee hurricane was the deadliest hurricane in Florida's history, killing 2,500 people. While most of the state suffered, the Tampa Bay area on the other hand avoided the storm's impacts, so it was time once again for the local papers to proclaim Tampa was safe from hurricanes. Tampa's Place on Gulf Map Lies Off Hurricane Track, proclaimed The Tampa Daily Times on September 25, 1928: front page news, in fact! The article suggested storm tracks did not favor Gulf storms trending towards Tampa, instead preferring landfalls in Texas or on the northern Gulf coast.
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  • The Tampa Morning Tribune on October 2, 1929, dropped this word of wisdom in its humor column on page six: "The reason why hurricanes never hit Tampa, is the high pressure brought to bear on them."
  • On November 16, 1930, the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) ran the headline "Florida's Calm West Coast Immune From Hurricanes" across page 7, proclaiming that even the elder denizens of the metropolitan area couldn't recall a severe storm. The paper even offered an explanation: perhaps Tampa Bay is positioned where storm's can only hit it via recurve, and such storms often weaken post-recurve.
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  • The St. Petersburg Times returned six years later in 1936 for yet another full-page spread article proclaiming the Florida West Coast Secure From Menace of Hurricanes. Weather Bureau meteorologist W. J. Wambaugh articulated several explanations for Tampa's immunity, all centering around the convenient placement of the highs and lows in the region ordained by the uneven heating of the Earth. According to Wambaugh, "everybody concedes that Florida has a very superior climate."
  • The idea of Tampa's storm immunity lived on, so much so that according to The Tampa Morning Tribune on November 3, 1937, storms simply did "not cause much anxiety around Tampa" at any point in the hurricane season.
  • The Tampa Sunday Tribune on February 10, 1952, reports the president of the Tampa Rotary Club as saying that "this area is relatively immune to disastrous tropical storms... the chances of a hurricane in the Tampa and St. Petersburg area are 1 to 20 in any given year."
  • Rather than boast the region's immunity to hurricanes, more cautionary perspectives began to emerge in the latter half of the 20th century. Hurricane Eloise in 1975 shattered the illusion that Panama City was hurricane-immune,. In the meantime the built-up Tampa Bay area was named the most hurricane-vulnerable in the nation, writes Dick Bothwell for the Tampa Bay Times in 1976.
  • Contrary the papers of the 1920s and 1930s, an editorial in the The Tampa Times took a cautionary approach to Tampa's hurricane luck in 1974, warning that "the fact that we have not experienced a major storm since 1960 doesn't mean we are completely immune from hurricanes. And when one does arrive the damage will challenge the imagination."

There's actually a similar jokingly-held belief of a "hurricane shield" for Hong Kong, Li's field, and even the Hong Kong Observatory had to deny that such a force field existed.
Last edited by TheAustinMan on Tue Aug 13, 2019 10:32 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Tampa's Hurricane Luck: Historical Perspectives

#2 Postby somethingfunny » Tue Aug 13, 2019 10:32 pm

Well you've done it now, 2019 is the year :lol:
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Re: Tampa's Hurricane Luck: Historical Perspectives

#3 Postby SconnieCane » Wed Aug 14, 2019 9:02 am

Of course we know Florida's west coast is far from immune to hurricanes, but they do seem to have a tendency to strike further south than Tampa, from Donna to Charley, Wilma and Irma. Of course, a much more devastating blow to the Tampa area was well within the forecast margin of error ("cone") for both Charley and Irma, but they once again "lucked out" in both cases.

Straights-runners that hook due north just after passing south of the peninsula, like Donna and Irma, could easily have hit Tampa if the steering ridge extended just a little further west.

A north and then northeast-moving Yucatan Channel runner could also easily plow right into the Tampa area. It's all down to the placement and orientation of steering influences when the storm arrives. So far they've gotten lucky.

Indeed, there does seem to be a relative minimum in intense hurricane strikes from Tampa through the Big Bend, but such a track was again within the forecast margin of error/supported by some model solutions for some forecast cycles during Michael last year.
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Re: Tampa's Hurricane Luck: Historical Perspectives

#4 Postby psyclone » Sat Aug 17, 2019 1:11 pm

More than anything this is a function of a remarkably long streak of luck. There is no other explanation. The west coast of Florida is certainly vulnerable...especially to late season canes from the northwest Caribbean on a north and eventual northeastward trajectory. Knowing human nature...residents currently underestimate the risk. If (when) the area gets a biggie, the risk will be overestimated until the memory fades. In 1848 two monster storms struck just 3 weeks apart...very similar to what happened on the treasure coast in 2004 with Frances and Jeanne. The fact that return frequency can range from a few weeks to now nearly a century indicates that the pulse of the tropics operates on a time scale that exceeds human life expectancy...and we are therefore prone to trickery wrt risk assessment absent a conscious effort at historical storms/geography and climo.
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