Models show double the number of Tampa Bay area homes will flood during a storm like Eta in 2050
Tampa Bay Times journalists discuss their reporting on Tropical Storm Eta and how the same storm would affect the region 30 years later with rising seas.
Tropical Storm Eta took the Tampa Bay region by surprise in November 2020 when it arrived during high tide and caused flood damage to some areas along the coast.
The Tampa Bay Times has worked with the National Hurricane Center to create models showing what a weaker storm like Eta could do in 2050 with projected higher sea levels.
WUSF's Jessica Meszaros spoke with Tampa Bay Times environmental reporter Zack Sampson and data editor Langston Taylor.
What did these models show could happen 30 years later?
Taylor: First, we took some assumptions of how much seas could rise in 30 years. We worked with plausible sea level rise scenarios that have been picked by local planners, and we can expect roughly between half a foot or a foot and a half of rising seas on average within that time.
We sent those heights to the National Hurricane Center, and what they showed — combined with our analysis of property data and building footprints — is that based on property just having any water on it where a building is, even in the best-case scenario we'd probably expect twice as many places to flood as during Eta.
During 2020, about 9,000 or fewer homes got water on the property. We expect that to get to about 17,000 — so nearly doubling, and that's with about 7 inches of sea level rise. If seas rise more, it could be a lot worse.
TAMPA BAY TIMES REPORT: Flooding will get worse in Tampa Bay. Tropical Storm Eta showed how.
To paint a picture for us, can you break down which specific areas were originally affected and then describe the expansion of projected damage in 2050?
Taylor: The worst hit areas we saw from 2020 from Tropical Storm Eta were some of the beach towns: Madeira Beach, St. Pete Beach. In St. Petersburg, we saw like northeast St. Petersburg — especially Shore Acres — was hit pretty hard. And we saw areas like Oldsmar in North Pinellas. We saw a little bit of flooding in Hillsborough, along Bayshore Boulevard, and then the Palmetto Beach area.
We can expect from future sea level rise, if the same storm hit again, first, all those areas will get more. And that can cause a huge difference, if you're looking at a few inches versus a foot or more, both in property and potentially life-threatening surge. We would also expect those areas further inland to see flooding.
What does this story tell us about tropical activity in the years to come for Tampa Bay?
Sampson: I think the No. 1 thing that people want to know, whenever a storm hits us today, and looking towards the future is how is climate change is going to affect this? How is it going to make it different? How is it going to make it worse? And usually, those questions are maybe more complicated than they first seem. And so, when you're looking at how is climate change is going to affect hurricane season — that's what really affects us — you have questions about will storms get more intense, will they become more frequent. And there’s scientific debate and there's still inquiry on all of these things, scientists are figuring it out.
But what's indisputable what we definitely know — and what this story shows — is that more water is going to mean more flooding for us. And with sea level rise, it's something that around Florida, you hear it mostly in the context of sunny day flooding, you know, sporadic flooding that you see in Miami Beach. Tampa Bay is experiencing that in multiple communities now, but not at the level that Southeast Florida is necessarily.
And what is a really unique threat to us here in Tampa Bay is that we're very vulnerable to storm surge, even in storms we think of as weaker. And it's those storms that are going to get, by an order of magnitude, much worse because of sea level rise with their storm surge damage.
I spoke to somebody who had just a little bit of flooding in their house in Shore Acres, and that's a flood-prone community and so they're familiar with the kind of dance here. And he said it's a game of inches, right? When you see storm surge come in our neighborhood, it might be just an inch or two from coming in my house and it might be in my garage. That's the difference between losing a lawnmower, a couple weed whackers, maybe a fridge… and ripping up all the flooring in your living room and kitchen, and that's a big difference. And so, that game of inches, that the game board is going to tilt against us with sea level rise over time.
This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to cover the impacts of climate change in the state.