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Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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Tampa's hurricane blessing: 92 years of misses, and counting

TAMPA — The statistical peak of hurricane season came and went this week and, just like it's done for the last 92 years, Tampa dodged a direct hit from a major storm.

Some scientists attribute the remarkably low frequency of hurricane strikes to blind luck. Others credit Tampa's location on the Central Gulf Coast as the main factor why devastating storms seem to skirt by.

Whatever the reason, maps from the National Hurricane Center showing where hurricanes have made landfall in the past 60 years reveal a striking pattern: while long stretches of South Florida and the Gulf Coast are dotted with stricken areas, the Tampa area remains virtually unblemished.

“Looking back on the frequency of hurricanes in the last 150 years, Tampa has been extremely lucky,” said William H. Gray, founder of the Tropical Meteorology Project at Colorado State University.

A major hurricane has not hit Tampa since 1921, decades before the National Weather Service started naming storms. In 1944, Brandon and eastern Hillsborough County caught a glancing blow from a no-name, Category 1 hurricane. Two years later, another weak, no-name hurricane trekked across Pinellas County.

And in 2004, one of the busiest storms seasons for Florida in recent memory, Hurricane Jeanne, a slow-moving Category 1 hurricane, passed through Pasco County and doused the entire state with inches of rain over a period of several days.

A colleague of Gray's said geography plays a big role in the streak.

“Some of the reasons why Tampa Bay tends to avoid major hurricane landfalls is due to its geographic location,” said Phil Klotzbach, a meteorology professor at CSU. “Storms have to hit Tampa Bay from the south and west to cause significant damage. Tracks of tropical cyclones have to be somewhat unusual to hit the area.”

Gray said a storm that formed in the Atlantic Ocean has to enter the Caribbean Sea, then take a sharp turn north around the Florida Straits to make a beeline toward Tampa.

“Those kinds of tracks are not very frequent,” Gray said.

Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center, said the Tampa area is “statistically overdue” for a Category 3 or stronger storm. Predicting how often an area will get struck or when a city overdue for a major storm will get hit is total guesswork, though, he said.

“That kind of long-range science doesn't exist,” Feltgen said. “Hurricanes are influenced by the weather patterns at the time.”

Predictions of the number of named storms in a given season sometimes aren't all that accurate, either. Before this year's storm season began June 1, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast above normal activity with 13 to 20 named storms, seven to 11 hurricanes and three to six major hurricanes of category 3 or higher.

Sept. 10 is the statistical peak of hurricane season each year, but only seven named storms have formed so far this year. The first hurricane of the year - Humberto - formed at 5 a.m. Wednesday, one of the latest times on record that the first hurricane of the season has formed.

Humberto is not expected to threaten land.

Daniel Noah of the National Weather Service said Tampa's best chance of a hurricane is in the fall, when cold fronts from Canada pushing south toward the Gulf of Mexico could steer a hurricane toward Tampa. If a hurricane was fish-hooking north from the Florida Straits while a cold blast headed toward the Gulf, the front would force the storm to veer west toward Texas or take a sharp turn north toward Florida's west coast.

“Hurricanes are like leaves on a fast-moving river,” Noah said. “Don't let your guard down yet.”

And Gray noted Tampa wouldn't have to take a direct hit to suffer damage. A hurricane churning just off the coast could create huge damage from storm surge.

“That will drive all the water into Tampa Bay,” Gray said. “It would be a hell of a mess.”

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Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect title to William Gray. He is the director of the Tropical Meteorology Project at Colorado State University’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences.

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