Flooding will get worse in Tampa Bay.
Tropical Storm Eta showed how.
It was only a tropical storm.
In November 2020, Eta’s eye brushed by Tampa Bay, winds blowing about 70 mph offshore.
The storm sent waves crashing onto the Howard Frankland Bridge, flooded thousands of properties and caused millions of dollars in damage, stunning people who expected a soft blow.
Within a generation, the toll could be much worse. Eta, hitting as tides peaked, was a preview of the way sea level rise around Tampa Bay will make even weak storms more destructive.
The Tampa Bay Times, in a first-of-its-kind partnership with the National Hurricane Center, sought to measure how much. The results are daunting.
If the same storm struck again 30 years later, 17,000 properties might flood, nearly twice as many.
That’s the best case. The worst would be more than 40,000 properties inundated, almost five times as bruising.
Tampa Bay faces an inescapable, and growing, threat.
Rising threat: Flood risk interactive
Play the flood risk game. Random probabilities determine whether your property floods.
The unlucky circumstances that made Eta’s floodwaters so brutal could be normal by 2050.
“That came in because the tide was really high,” said Linda Portal, the community development director of Madeira Beach, which was hit hard by Eta.
“Well, what if the tide is always high?”
If Eta struck again
Along Shore Drive at the top of the bay, former Oldsmar Mayor Jerry Beverland watched the surge soak more of his neighborhood than he had seen in his half-century living there.
“I’ve never experienced a storm like that,” Beverland said. “Don’t really want to experience another like that. But I’m sure we will.”
In areas where flooding was worst from Eta, Pinellas data shows similar storm surges have at least a 1 in 25 chance of occurring in any given year, according to county flood plain administrator Lisa Foster. In 2020, some 1,400 homes, valued at more than $176 million, may have suffered flood damage, the county estimated.
Sea level rise — growing as people burn fossil fuels and warm the planet — means tropical storms will cause more harm. Higher water. Further flooding. More wrecked homes and businesses.
But slight changes in tides are hard to imagine, and yearly storm odds are tricky to grasp.
So the Times asked the National Hurricane Center to make the picture clearer: How much of the Tampa Bay area flooded from Eta, and how much more would flood if an identical storm hit once seas rise further?
Scientists took an advanced computer model — the one they use to predict flooding as storms come ashore — and applied it to Eta. The program considers everything from a system’s size and wind speed to the slope of the coast. It’s how the government sends warnings for life-threatening surge to cellphones across the country.
At the Times’ request, the agency modeled Eta in its original conditions, then did it again after raising sea levels to align with local projections for 2050 — or the end of a 30-year mortgage signed in 2020. A researcher created maps showing how high the surge would reach all over Tampa Bay. (Checking against actual water gauge data from after Eta’s landfall helped confirm the numbers.) The National Hurricane Center has never before used its technology like this for a media organization.
The Times overlaid maps of the predicted flooding with tax parcels and nearly a million records of building footprints in affected counties — Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee. A foot of water over an open field is one thing; a foot over a residential neighborhood is another.
To see where Eta’s surge caused the most damage, the Times compared modeled flooding with the locations of buildings and property. In 2020, flooding hit hardest in northeast St. Petersburg and Madeira Beach.
Once seas rise, the same storm would flood more properties in Pinellas beach towns and South Tampa. This assumes “intermediate-low” sea level rise until 2050, a best-case scenario.
With “intermediate” rise, many neighborhoods would see flooding at more than 1 in 5 buildings. Risk isn’t evenly spread throughout; properties closest to the water are most vulnerable.
“Intermediate-high” sea level rise would mean communities all around Tampa Bay suffer more flooding.
“High” sea level rise, an unlikely worst case, would allow a 2050 Eta to flood most buildings in dozens of neighborhoods across the region.
The modeling shows that if Eta struck again in three decades:
- Thousands more properties would be underwater.
- Hundreds would face life-threatening levels of flooding.
- Entire neighborhoods that went unscathed in 2020 would be hit.
“Just because you’re not impacted now, or may be out of risk, doesn’t mean you won’t be impacted at a point somewhere in the future,” said Cody Fritz, a National Hurricane Center storm surge specialist.
About 9,000 properties were inundated in November 2020, according to the Times’ analysis of the model. (Often buildings are elevated, limiting damage.) If waters rise only 7 inches by 2050, in line with the most conservative recommended projection for local sea level rise, Eta would flood as many as 17,000 properties.
At 11 inches, 24,000 could flood.
At 16 inches, 32,000.
In an unlikely worst case, with 22 inches of sea level rise: 43,500 properties.
2020 storm packed a brutal punch
In a major hurricane, an extra few inches of water — whether from high tide or climate change — wouldn’t matter much. But in a small storm, the kind Tampa Bay is especially vulnerable to, it can be the difference between a submerged driveway or a lake inside the house.
In 2020, some people found themselves over the brink.
Eric Cabrera, a retired New York corrections officer who always dreamed of living at the beach, scrambled to lift his daughters, then 4 and 7, onto a bed and out of ankle-deep water splashing around their Madeira Beach home. He and his wife, Regina, didn’t want the girls getting electrocuted. Sewage backed up in the tub, spewing a rancid smell from the bathroom. Barbies floated through the living room.
Some of his neighbors, he said, hardly had any water in their homes.
More than a year later, Cabrera’s family has not moved back. They are embroiled in a lawsuit with their insurance company and have been told by the city that the property is so damaged they may have to tear it down and rebuild. Mold has colonized a living room wall. Appliances sit unplugged. A red folder on a fridge holds school papers from October 2020.
Cabrera is tapping savings to pay his mortgage and for a rental up the street, he said. The girls ask when they can go home, so he tells them: “Daddy’s trying. We have to fight.”
Floodwater is salty and corrosive and can be littered with garbage, gasoline and sewage. “Storm surge water is going to literally pollute your house,” said public insurance adjuster Steve Byers, who surveyed homes in the Florida Panhandle after Hurricane Michael.
It ruins nearly everything it touches: carpets, sofas, beds, cabinets, pictures, birth certificates and televisions. Homes might be elevated, but garages and lanais are not. Water fries lawn mowers, weed whackers, freezers and pool pumps. It bashes the siding and dampens the insulation. It births mold in Sheetrock, forcing cleanup crews to cut out 2 feet of wall, at least, even if the flood reached only a couple of inches.
Just 3 inches of water may cause $12,000 of damage in a 1,000-square-foot home, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The bigger the home, the more expensive it gets. In a 2,500-square-foot house, the same water level could bring a nearly $30,000 bill. Double the flood to 6 inches and the cost could top $52,000. Those estimates are a couple of years old, too. Costs would only be higher today because of inflation and stress on the construction industry.
Three inches soaked Christine Pickering’s home in St. Petersburg’s Shore Acres neighborhood, wrecking the nursery chair she sat in with her babies. Pickering and her husband hired contractors to cut drywall and clean the tile floors. The water rose higher outside, totaling two SUVs in the driveway.
Pickering doesn't even remember a rush on sandbags before Eta. “Nobody was even talking about the surge and water,” she said.
The flood floated birds of paradise plants that sat in hulking, 100-gallon pots in front of The Tiki Bar and Grill in Gulfport down the block like fishing bobbers. Owner Mark Amis lost three freezers, he said, but another inch of water would have hit expensive kitchen equipment on casters, ballooning his losses “from about $3,000 to close to $20,000.”
The National Hurricane Center’s modeling shows the storm in 2050 would push at least 8.5 more inches of water toward the Tiki.
Too many people underestimate the danger of events like Eta, Amis believes.
“They think, ‘Well, it’s a tropical storm, it’s not that big of a deal,’ ” he said. “No, it is a big deal.”
3 feet of water is life-threatening
At a certain point, floods threaten more than property.
In places bearing the brunt of Eta in 2020, sea level rise could turn the storm from damaging to deadly. Even when ordered to evacuate, some people will always stay behind.
One person is known to have died in Eta around Tampa Bay. A Bradenton Beach man was electrocuted walking through ankle-deep water in his flooded laundry room. At least 33 people were rescued in Pinellas.
Almost no populated areas saw the amount of storm surge the National Hurricane Center considers “life-threatening”: 3 feet or more (about up to an adult’s waist). That will change.
Even in the best case for sea level rise, a 2050 version of Eta would flood more than 250 properties with life-threatening surge. In only an “intermediate” scenario, that much flooding would affect scores of homes in Shore Acres and Madeira Beach, totaling nearly 1,100 properties across the region.
In the worst case, the number would swell above 11,000.
Such an enormous change comes because, at most homes, 2020’s floodwaters were usually not much higher than a foot above ground. With an expected amount of sea level rise approaching 2 feet, flooding sweeps over the threshold easily.
Firefighters waded more than knee-deep in the dark through the Twin City Manufactured Home Community off Gandy Boulevard to load residents onto boats in 2020. The complex’s main drag floods even during routine summer downpours. But no one at Twin City expected a tropical storm would be so bad. The model shows waters were up to 2 feet deep in the area.
“It came in so fast,” said Wanda Avery, 70, recalling the surge. She was pulled out by firefighters, she said, and then went to a shelter.
Two doors down, Larry Elkins worried he wouldn’t be able to take his Maltese, Gizmo, with him into the shelter, so he stuck it out.
Elkins, 76, watched the water rise to the top of his three steps, a couple of inches shy of crossing the threshold. It destroyed the motor scooter that he relied on to get to the Winn-Dixie on Fourth Street and the 7-Eleven around the corner. A former truck driver, he said he cannot walk more than a few hundred feet without having to sit because of nerve damage in his legs.
A $450 used scooter that the Red Cross helped him buy after Eta died within months; checks from Social Security barely cover rent and utilities, putting another scooter out of reach. He now relies on neighbors for rides.
Looking back on Eta, Elkins remembers all the stress. He has had three heart surgeries, he said, and keeps an agreement with a neighbor to flick on a porch light if he needs help. But Elkins now wonders how long it would take for someone to get to him through so much water.
“What if I had a heart attack?”
Tampa exposed in the future
Thousands of Tampa Bay residents who lost nothing in Eta wouldn’t be so lucky in the future.
Even with a conservative sea level rise projection, about 8,500 additional properties could suffer at least a foot of flooding if the storm hits in 2050.
Many of those are homes without a waterfront view, including in St. Pete Beach, Gulfport and Davis Islands.
Tampa is perhaps the clearest example of this spread.
Iconic Bayshore Boulevard temporarily became a river along Hillsborough Bay. But most homes were spared serious effects from Eta. In 2050, the same storm could bring a foot of flooding to most houses on the boulevard between S Rome Avenue and W Swann Avenue. In the worst-case scenario, part of the road itself could be swallowed by 5 feet of sea.
On Davis Islands, the wealthy neighborhood where Tampa General Hospital sits, Eta’s inundation was largely limited to properties on the water or near the island’s northern tip, according to the model. At worst, three decades of sea level rise would mean the same storm could cover almost the whole island in at least a foot of water.
Tampa General has elevated key infrastructure like generators to withstand surge. But Eta in the worst-case scenario would flood roads around the trauma center.
Community housing at MacDill Air Force Base, home to Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command, could be at risk. The complex suffered minor damage to docks and roofs in 2020, said Lt. Christopher Thibeaux-Moore, a former spokesperson for the 6th Air Refueling Wing. Residents were ordered to shelter in place.
In the future, every property in the Independence Park community could flood if Eta hit again, depending on how much the seas rise (many of the homes there, however, are elevated). Land swamped by a little over a foot of water in 2020 could see about 2 feet in a conservative scenario, or a life-threatening 3 feet in the worst case.
Just east of downtown Tampa, in Palmetto Beach, Cristy Holt watched water rise over the first step to her house on Bermuda Boulevard, the highest she’d ever seen. If the home flooded, she thought, her family could retreat to the attic. The surge stopped short.
Palmetto Beach floods from heavy seasonal rains. Holt’s street “looks like an infinity pool out to the bay,” she said. Many houses are old but elevated, including hers, which was built in 1933.
Some have electric sockets installed higher up the wall, said Laura Meyer, former president of the Palmetto Beach Community Association. That way, owners only need to replace the drywall and not wiring after a flood.
As Eta blew past, residents posted pictures of knee-high water outside on the Palmetto Beach community Facebook page. Waves washed away part of the seawall at DeSoto Park, home to a playground, a field, barbecue area and fishing pier, Meyer said.
“It’s totally at the heart of the community,” she said.
Fewer than 200 properties could have seen surge impacts in 2020 in ZIP code 33605, stretching from Palmetto Beach inland through Ybor City, according to the model. By 2050, the places at risk would grow by about 50 percent at least.
At dozens of homes, the surge could be life-threatening.
Eta damage added up
Eta was just one named storm out of 30 in 2020, several of which left far more damage in other parts of the United States.
After it blew away, few people — other than those flooded — paid attention. Eta did not trigger a major disaster declaration, a St. Petersburg Office of Emergency Management review noted, which would have opened the faucet on funding and assistance from FEMA.
Typically, the state would have to show enough damage to surpass both Florida and local governments’ capacity to respond. Eta’s impact was not so widespread, said Florida Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie, and no cities reported unmanageable difficulties.
Some local leaders say they were nevertheless dazed by the intensity.
Madeira Beach estimated about 200 places flooded, or roughly 10 percent of all buildings, but that was not enough to draw relief from FEMA. Eta may have been small, Mayor John Hendricks said, but “it was a disaster for Madeira Beach.”
Between wind and water, Oldsmar sustained potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to homes, with the worst flooding hitting the area around Shore Drive and Lafayette Boulevard, according to the city and county.
About 200 homes in Redington Shores also suffered flood damage, many under an inch or 2 of water, said Vice Mayor Michael Robinson. A few had up to a foot.
Pinellas surveyors, mostly scanning from their cars, estimated that about 500 homes across the county had “major” flooding, potentially 18 inches or more, records show. Twenty buildings — including more than a dozen manufactured homes — were considered a total loss or close to it. Together, those buildings were worth approximately $400,000, according to the county.
Federal disaster relief includes both public assistance for government bills and individual assistance for personal expenses like housing and food costs. Most programs were not open to victims after Eta, but the Small Business Administration offered low-interest disaster loans.
There is no one comprehensive estimate for what Eta cost Tampa Bay’s cities, residents and business owners.
St. Pete Beach rebuilt a pier and cleaned up flooding in a community center, among other recovery tasks. Costs topped $210,000.
Flooding in downtown Gulfport busted up docks near the casino. The city paid to remove boats that washed ashore from Boca Ciega Bay. The total bill: more than $112,000.
In flood-prone neighborhoods of St. Petersburg, several homes saw about a foot or more of water. City officials realized afterward they had not communicated the risk clearly, especially because Eta fell short of mandatory evacuation orders.
Staffers suggested several ways to improve, including: establishing a process for collecting debris even when a disaster is not declared; developing rules to keep people from driving through floodwaters and splashing waves into nearby homes; and reviewing local thresholds for triggering a disaster response.
“Eta exposed just how vulnerable many of our residents are to rising flood water, even in the absence of a hurricane strength storm and/or mandatory evacuation,” St. Petersburg’s emergency management review said. “It is paramount that we prepare for the ‘gray area’ storms such as these.”
The risk will only grow
The next storm will blow stronger or weaker, track east or west, be at least somewhat different from Eta in every way.
To capture that uncertainty, experts need to know more than what’s already happened. They build fake storms, simulating water and wind, to judge what’s possible and what’s probable.
Researchers at Virginia Tech and the University of North Carolina in 2019 created nearly 200 such storms affecting Tampa Bay, drawing maps that reflect the yearly chance of flooding.
Their research describes 50-year, 100-year and 500-year surges. (A 50-year zone is where the annual chance of flooding is at least 2 percent, 1 in 50.)
This map shows the path taken by Eta's eye, and how far winds extended. Tropical storms have sustained maximum winds of 39 mph or more; hurricane winds are at least 74 mph. Not all areas inside the wind swath experience such high winds.
Across Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties, almost 70,000 properties are at risk in the 50-year surge zone today, based on a Times analysis — seven times as many as flooded during Eta. Not all those properties will necessarily flood in a single storm, but they are all vulnerable.
Once seas rise a little more than 2 feet, the smallest amount researchers studied, the same zone will grow to include 30,000 additional properties. Already, $39 billion of property value is at risk, but that would grow to more than $52 billion, almost the value of every Major League Baseball franchise combined.
Such change could come within 50 years.
The surge zone of tomorrow pushes farther in all directions. In Pinellas, it seeps north from Bay Vista and spreads between Lake Maggiore and Bartlett Park. In Hillsborough, it squeezes South Tampa, flooding from the west and east. The zone stretches throughout Rocky Point; it encompasses nearly all of Palmetto Beach.
Near the water, residents already at risk will be more likely to suffer flooding every year.
Take those 30,000 homes, businesses and other properties added to the 50-year surge zone. About half of them are outside the researchers' 100-year surge zone today, and the odds of those places flooding during a typical mortgage are about 1 in 4 or less.
That chance will nearly double in just a couple of generations, to 45 percent at least.
One homeowner’s struggle
Storm surge flooding usually recedes within hours. But the pain endures.
Residents learned the hard way after Eta.
“They were really, really shocked at the intensity of the recovery,” said Foster, the Pinellas flood plain administrator.
Several families in Madeira Beach were at least temporarily forced out of their homes.
The city said it issued nine letters for properties that suffered “substantial damage,” meaning problems caused by Eta were estimated to cost more than 50 percent of the building’s value. Under government rules, such homes have to be torn down and rebuilt or at least dramatically — and expensively — overhauled to meet stricter, modern standards.
Victoria Glovitch and Chris Smith had not even fully unpacked at 520 S Bayshore Drive when Eta roared in the gulf. The gray block home, walking distance from the beach, was the first Glovitch had bought. She put $80,000 down and moved in August, leaving behind the gym she owned in North Carolina. As soon as they arrived, they discovered termites.
The house was being tented the day the storm blew past. They Boogie-boarded in the waves at Siesta Key, where they had rented an Airbnb.
The water only reached a couple of inches high in the house. The insurer recommended a restoration company, whose workers cut drywall up to 4 feet and brought in fans. They did sloppy work.
Eight months later, a test showed wet studs, said Glovitch, 37. Mold was everywhere.
“It was the worst year,” she said. “Welcome to Florida.”
The couple bounced between temporary accommodations, including a beach rental that cost $6,000 a month, an apartment and a couple of hotels. They kept up their virtual fitness company, The Wellness Xchange, on the go, their life in boxes. Flooding in the garage had rusted dumbbells and ruined rolls of flooring from Glovitch’s old gym.
“We ran classes out of a Residence Inn,” said Smith, 36.
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Glovitch began having panic attacks, she said, for the first time in her life. The week of Christmas 2020, they were told to vacate a rental by the next day. She remembers sitting with their dogs, thinking she had no close friends in Florida and nowhere to go.
“Your safety, your health, your shelter, everything was taken away,” Glovitch said.
Local officials informed them the damages were estimated to surpass 50 percent of the house’s value, which was pegged at just over $76,000. Glovitch months before had bought it for $345,000. But the rule does not consider the value of land.
If they tore down and rebuilt, they said, the first floor would have to be about a story higher to match new flood standards.
Glovitch consulted financial advisers. They told her to sell the land and file for bankruptcy.
Instead, she and Smith had the house reappraised. A new value, backdated to the day before Eta, was high enough that they could make repairs without touching the 50 percent mark.
Progress was slow. They were nearly done when Hurricane Elsa threatened Tampa Bay last summer. Smith remembers gathering dozens of sandbags and putting up plastic around the house. Glovitch had already decided she would not move back. Not after all the mold. Not with the panic that was sure to accompany future storms.
In August, she sold the house for $105,000 more than she had paid the year before. After the continuing rental expenses, losing many possessions and the construction costs, Smith said they would be lucky to break even.
“No one can pay for all the mental stress,” Glovitch said.
She has started the process of securing a real estate license, hoping that anyone she helps will not have to experience the same nightmare. She wishes someone had told them about the 50 percent rule, and that they’d had to sign a form saying they understood it. She wishes that there were a better way to learn about past flooding on a property. When buyers ask, she said, it seems sellers and agents can always just answer: “Not to my knowledge.” The old owners of her home, she recalled, said they didn’t know about earlier floods.
“If anything,” Glovitch said, “this has taught me to absolutely trust no one.”
Next time, if she buys a house on the water, it will have to be elevated and probably new construction — if they can afford it. That’s if there is a next time.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever buy in Florida again,” Glovitch said.
About the reporters
LANGSTON TAYLOR, data editor
I write words. Sometimes they’re in code. I’m a Maryland native who first worked at the Times as a reporting intern in 2016. Now, as data editor, I help turn data and documents into journalism that serves Tampa Bay and all of Florida.
ZACHARY T. SAMPSON, environment reporter
I cover the environment for the Times, which is a big topic. Mostly I focus on how we treat the land, water and animals around us, and how they affect us, too. Some days that means wading into a harbor off Tampa Bay; others, it means dissecting the latest policy debate in Tallahassee. I began working at the Times in 2014 and am part of our hurricane team, which reports on storms across Florida.
About this series
Forecasters and doomsday prognosticators have long labeled Tampa Bay among the riskiest areas in America for destruction from hurricanes.
The Tampa Bay Times wanted to determine how bad the danger is and why.
Environment reporter Zachary T. Sampson and data editor Langston Taylor spoke to more than 100 people: residents, professors, forecasters, insurance experts, scientists, lawyers and local government officials. They worked with researchers at the National Hurricane Center and with data from the University of North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton to model storm surge under current conditions and with potential sea level rise. They compared flood maps to property records, building footprints and census records, analyzing millions of lines of data.
Determining how much rising seas will supercharge surge flooding is complicated by factors including topography, human-made construction and the physics of moving water.
The Times studied overall risk and the example of Tropical Storm Eta, which hit in early November 2020. In the first instance, reporters relied on National Hurricane Center maps, which show worst-case flooding for every spot on a map, depending on hurricane category. No single storm will cause peak flooding in every place. The maps illustrate general vulnerability.
Eta provides a case study. The model’s accuracy was spot-checked against conditions observed when the storm hit.
In some ways, these are low-end estimates for overall flooding. The modeling only looks at storm surge and does not factor in extra height delivered by waves. It also does not consider flooding from rainfall, which can lead to higher water inland.
It’s important to note these analyses have unavoidable limitations, too. Surge models are computer simulations. Reality will always be at least somewhat different. There’s no easy way to determine how high every building sits above ground, making it impossible to estimate how many homes or businesses could flood inside. But any level of water on a property could be damaging and dangerous.
The Times further took a conservative approach to estimating flood risk, measuring water at the midpoint of a building footprint rather than at a property’s edges. While assessing possible damage from Eta, reporters focused only on places where flooding could top 1 foot, the same threshold the National Hurricane Center uses to create surge advisories.
Put together, the Times’ findings reveal staggering risk.
- REPORTERS: Zachary T. Sampson, Langston Taylor
- EDITORS: Amy Hollyfield, Mark Katches
- PHOTOGRAPHERS: Douglas R. Clifford, Luis Santana, Martha Asencio-Rhine
- PHOTO EDITOR: Chris Urso
- GRAPHICS: Langston Taylor, Paul Alexander and Ron Borresen
- PRINT DESIGN: Paul Alexander
- DIGITAL DESIGN: Martin Frobisher
- COPY EDITOR: Tim Tierney
- ENGAGEMENT: Meaghan Habuda, Carly Thompson and Joshua Gillin
- VIDEO: Jennifer Glenfield
- CONSULTANTS: Carolyn Fox, Maria Carrillo, Ashley Dye and Adam Playford