CLEARWATER — For almost 100 years, this stretch of coast line has enjoyed a charmed existence, catching at worst only glancing blows from the dozens of hurricanes that ravaged other parts of Florida's shoreline.
That's luckier than it seems since, for the past 28 years, Pinellas County's Emergency Operations Center — the nerve center of its disaster preparation and recovery efforts — has been housed in the basement of a former jail whose windows are vulnerable to hurricane-force winds.
“If we got a Category 3 or higher, the windows would have failed,” said Tom Iovino, an emergency preparedness specialist with Pinellas County. “The building would have flooded because windows would have blown out.”
With the six-month hurricane season beginning today, the county need only ride its luck a few more weeks before it unveils a new EOC on Ulmerton Road, part of a new $81 million public safety complex built to withstand Category 5 winds. It also will house the county's 911 call center and a new administrative center for the sheriff's office.
The complex, paid for through Penny for Pinellas revenue, is storm-hardened and can run on generator power. In the event of a disaster, the building can remain operational without being resupplied for up to two weeks, Iovino said.
“Worst-case scenario, something like (Hurricane) Charley comes through Pinellas County and it will still be there,” he said.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasters are predicting a near- or below-normal hurricane season this year, with eight to 13 named storms, three to six hurricanes and one or two major hurricanes.
That is mainly based on the expected development this summer of El Niño, a band of warmer waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean. It typically produces faster winds in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean region, making it tougher for hurricanes to form.
But NOAA officials are warning against complacency, a caution echoed by Iovino, who remembers a similar forecast in 1992, the year that Category 5 Hurricane Andrew left 44 dead, destroyed an estimated 63,000 homes and caused about $25 billion in damage in Florida.
“That's your warning right there,” he said.
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In addition to its new EOC, Pinellas has updated its automated notification system this year.
The previous system only could send text messages to a maximum of 10,000 cellphones. The county, in partnership with the cities of Belleair, Seminole, Treasure Island and some local agencies, is paying $235,000 a year for FirstCall, a system that can send texts, emails and automated phone messages across the whole county or to specific communities.
In the event of a hurricane, the system can provide residents — who register — up-to-date information on evacuation orders and the location of water supplies. The county's annual share of the cost is about $116,000.
“You can put everybody in the family on it,” Iovino said. “We're trying to reach you as many ways as possible.”
Florida residents this year also for the first time will get official storm surge estimates from NOAA when their area is under a hurricane watch. Those will come in the form of color-coded maps that show storm-surge levels measured in feet above ground level.
“It's the storm surge that kills the most people,” said Brian LaMarre, meteorologist-in-charge at NOAA's National Weather Service Tampa Bay. “You'll be able to see how much water potentially will flood the area.”
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Experts think the Bay area's long streak of avoiding a direct hit may be the result of high-pressure fronts that form over the region during the summer.
Storms approaching central Florida tend to be pushed west into the Gulf and head for Louisiana or Texas, or head east into the Atlantic before making landfall in the Carolinas or farther north.
But that does leave two windows of increased vulnerability, in June and late in the season when cold fronts from the north can push storms this way, LaMarre said.
That was the case the past two years. In June 2012, Tropical Storm Debby caused the closure of the Sunshine Skyway for three days and storm surge resulted in widespread erosion of Pinellas beaches. One year later, Tropical Storm Andrea brought heavy rain and tornadoes to the Bay area.
“Sometimes tropical storms can deliver more significant impact than a hurricane,” LaMarre said. “They tend to be slow moving and deliver tens of inches of rain — and produce thunderstorms that deliver tornadoes.”
This season marks the 10th anniversary of the 2004 season, when four hurricanes battered Florida in the space of 46 days, including Hurricane Charley, which, until it veered toward Port Charlotte, had Pinellas County in its cross hairs. The next year, the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record, produced seven major hurricanes.
Those two seasons may have bred complacency in Pinellas residents, Iovino warns. With all roads in and out of Pinellas liable to flood, help after a major hurricane could be a long time coming, he said.
“People think we survived four hurricanes, and that's dangerous,” Iovino said. “The challenge is to remind people who lived in Pinellas in 2004, you didn't see a hurricane; all you saw was a close brush.”