Getting Ready for a Blow

Sep 27, 2022

I spent several decades in hurricane country during my time on the Little Manatee River, just off Tampa Bay, and one thing I learned is there’s no dependable categorization for severe weather on the coast.

While satellite weather forecasts and computerized rainfall projections have made things like storm surge a lot more predictable, Mother Nature sometimes outsmarts the weather gurus. It will be wise to keep that in mind as Hurricane Ian approaches the Gulf Coast this week.

The worst “hurricane” we experienced in all our years in Florida was not even a hurricane. It was not in hurricane season and it had no name.

In fact, that was its name.

The “No Name” storm popped up on radar just 50 miles out in the Gulf on March 12, 1993. It showed as a fat red line, straight as a ruler, from northeast to southwest, about midnight.

We got about three hours warning of a “severe weather event” on local TV.

We were not worried—we had already been in our house through several minor September hurricanes that brushed the Tampa Bay area, with zero issues. How bad could an un-named storm in March be?

We found out pretty quickly.

When that red line hit the coast around dawn, the temperature dropped 20 degrees and the wind went from zero to 70 mph in about five minutes.

The power went out.

The water in the river almost immediately started running backwards. It’s a tidal river and it does this normally on occasion with strong incoming tides pushed by moderate winds. But this was not normal.

The water was moving fast enough to create whirlpools and eddies, which never occur in this normally lazy blackwater flow.

And within an hour or two, the water level went from normal, about two feet below the cap of the seawall, to over the seawall and into the back yard.

“Don’t worry,” I told my wife. “We’re 13 feet above the mean high tide.”

“Why is the water coming up through the rain gutters, then?” was her response.

It was, gushing up through every drain on the street.

Soon the street was submerged.

“We can always get out in the jon boat,” I advised the family. My wife rolled her eyes. The jon boat was 8’ long.

The wind kept buffeting the house. Palm fronds slammed into the windows. The water was creeping up the driveway. A mullet jumped out in the street. Out-of-control gulls went sailing by, screaming.

“I guess we’d better go if it gets much highers,” I had to admit as I watched the water come lap at the doorstep. By then it was waist deep in the street—driving out was out of the question.

And just then, the wind began to drop. Of course, it only dropped to about 40 mph, but that was enough—within 30 minutes or so, the water stopped rising. In an hour, it was noticeably lower.

And that was our brush with the “No Name” Storm, one of the worst weather disasters of the century.

It turned out Tampa Bay had very minor problems outside some sunken boats—farther north along Florida’s west coast, the strength of the storm and the topography had put 12 feet of water into some homes that were only a few feet above sea level. People had drowned in their attics trying to avoid the rapidly rising water. Tornadoes had leveled houses inland all over the state.

And away from the coast, the storm flexed its muscle as a major blizzard. There was 4” of snow blanketing the ground in the Florida Panhandle, 13 inches in Birmingham, Alabama. Over 50” of snow paralyzed the Smoky Mountain states and snapped off tens of thousands of trees, blocking roads for hundreds of miles.

In any case, bottom line is you can never be too prepared for severe weather. The storm headed for Florida’s Gulf Coast this week is sure to cause plenty of trouble, even though forecasters say it will “only” be a Cat 1 storm when it hits land.

The storm is forecasted to be a slow mover with lots of rain, and that probably means flooding for anyone living on a river or in low coastal land. Eight to 10” of rain can be a real disaster for people who live on land that’s only a few feet above sea level.

Bottom line is that many storms that seem like minimal concerns to many of us can be disasters for those in the bullseye. Keep your eyes and ears open on this one.

(As this is written, NMMA has announced that the giant International Boat Builders’ Exhibition and Conference (IBEX) planned this week for Tampa Convention Center has been cancelled. It’s a costly move, but probably a wise one.)

-- Frank Sargeant