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His city spared, Tampa's Bob Buckhorn resumes life as a mayor in full

By Richard Danielson, Times Staff Writer
Published: September 11, 2017 Updated: September 15, 2017 at 10:33 AM
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn checks out damage from Hurricane Irma on Bayshore Boulevard Monday. "This is better than I expected," he said. RICHARD DANIELSON | Times

TAMPA — After sleeping for an hour on the floor next to a treadmill in an exercise room at Tampa's emergency operations center, Mayor Bob Buckhorn ventured out Monday morning for what was officially a tour of the damage from Hurricane Irma.

But within a few miles, it felt more like a victory lap.

"This is better than I expected," Buckhorn said from the front seat of a black city SUV driven by a police detective. Minutes later, he called Air Force Col. April Vogel, the commander of the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill Air Force Base.

"Colonel, this is Swagger," Buckhorn said, using the Top Gun-style nickname bestowed on him a few years back by pilots at the wing. "Just checking to see how you're doing." (Pause). "You don't know how blessed we were." (Pause.) "Yes, yes, yes. It certainly could have been very bad."

The good news had started with a 3 a.m. call from interim Police Chief Brian Dugan, who told Buckhorn some traffic lights were out on Dale Mabry Highway, but "he was astounded by how good it looked by comparison to what we expected it to look like," Buckhorn said.

In daylight, the assessment held. Many tree limbs had been blown down, and some trees were toppled. Hurricane Irma had lurched east away from Tampa at a key moment, but still managed to blow the steeple off a church near Ybor City and cleanly snap a Morgan & Morgan billboard from its poles on S Dale Mabry.

Generally, however, the mood reflected a perspective that cleanup and repair would be manageable, not catastrophic. Bayshore Boulevard, which floods in a no-name storm and gets trashed every year by the Gasparilla Pirate Invasion, looked good, all things considered.

Over the course of an hour, Buckhorn stopped to chat with three passers-by who were helping two police officers prop up a tree in Bayshore's median. He hugged a waste water department worker clearing away a fallen tree. He chatted up cops directing traffic. He visited the church with the blasted-off steeple. And he basked in the relief and thumbs-up gestures from passing drivers, residents out for a walk and even some people on the upper floor of a Bayshore high-rise.

"Did you hear them hollering up there on the balcony," he asked shortly before 11 a.m. "I think they had a few cocktails."

Buckhorn said the stress of bracing the city for Irma didn't affect him physically because working through the pre-storm checklist was all-consuming.

"I don't know that I allowed myself to think about what might happen because I had a job to do and we had a job to do," he said. But, on the morning after, he welcomed Tampa's good fortune. "Now that, I'm going to allow myself to enjoy."

The next moment, though, he started talking about the lessons of the storm. One key takeaway: Try to depend less on external organizations. At one point Wednesday morning, 52 of the city's 230 waste water pumping stations had lost power. (City officials said they had no early indication of how much untreated sewage was released as a result, but Buckhorn said it surely happened.) Tampa Electric worked with the city to restore service, Buckhorn said, but he was thinking about buying more backup generators and fuel for the future.

"I don't like being at the mercy of somebody else," he said. And yes, there was a public disagreement Sunday between Buckhorn and County Administrator Mike Merrill about who had the authority to authorize a curfew in the city. But mostly he took heart at how well local and state agencies worked together. "The big picture stuff was as good as it could get in a situation that was very fluid, very chaotic and potentially devastating."

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times