Irma’s wind speed weakens, but ocean’s ‘storm surge’ will still flood Tampa Bay area

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

We got an important weather lesson from PIX11 meteorologist, Craig Allen, on the Sunday that Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida.

If you have homes near the Gulf of Mexico or the bays and canals of Florida’s west coast, you’re still facing the prospect of major flooding in the streets and your houses, even though Irma weakened to a Category 2 hurricane Sunday evening.

“The category number is based on wind speed,” Allen explained.  “So, even though the storm winds have decreased from 185 to 110, the power of the storm—and the long track of the storm over the open water—continues to drive the water into the land.”

The Tampa Bay area, which hasn’t taken a direct hit from a hurricane since 1921 — nearly a century ago — was bracing for storm surges of five to eight feet from the ocean.

“It’s like a wall of water just comes in,” Allen told us.  “The ocean comes in and then fills the bays and the canals and the inlets.  Everything on land starts to fill up rapidly, too.”

The veteran meteorologist talked about a “blow out” tide that allowed Tampa Bay and other, large bodies of water to empty out on Florida’s west coast, before the strongest winds came in.

“As Irma was coming north, the east-northeast winds were pushing the water out into the Gulf.  As the storm goes by, the reverse winds blow the water back in.”

This is what causes the massive wall of water.

Shannon Shepp, executive director for Florida’s Department of Citrus, grew up in the Tampa Bay area. Her great-grandparents had a home in Clearwater Beach, two blocks from the Gulf of Mexico.

The home passed down through multiple generations, until it was sold in the spring—barely six months before the big storm.

“For Tampa Bay, this is probably the worst of the worst,” Shepp predicted.

Regarding hurricane activity, she observed, “We’ve been fortunate, since 1921, to have it not go through Tampa Bay.”

But that all changes Sunday.

Shepp, who currently lives in Lakeland, in the central part of Florida, remembers three hurricanes that badly impacted the “citrus belt” in 2004, in the course of a month.

The belt extends from Daytona, on the east coast, to Tampa.

“Charley, Jeanne, and Frances came through Polk County,” Shepp recalled of the 2004 storms.  “What growers saw was flooding in their groves; grapefruit growers were particularly hard hit.”

Shepp remembered seeing fruit floating in rivers and canals in central Florida in 2004.

“Our previous year’s crop was about 242 million boxes of oranges,” Shepp  said.  “Following that, we only had 150 million boxes.  90 million less.  It took the fruit off the trees.”

Now, Shepp is following the track of the storm to see what it will do to Tampa Bay, the place filled with so many of her childhood memories, and the citrus belt that’s a focal point of her work.