Part 1 of 2. Via St. Pete Catalyst

On Thursday, May 23, 2024, clouds formed over eastern Cuba.

These unremarkable clouds, accompanied by a smattering of rain, represented something much greater: The first activity of the 2024 Atlantic hurricane season, which may be the most active – and the most damaging – ever.

The climate science team at the University of Missouri expects 26 named storms this year. Hurricane expert Dr. Phil Klotzbach at Colorado State says 23. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – the country’s foremost hurricane authority and the operator of the famed ‘Hurricane Hunters’ expects 24, while scientists at the University of Pennsylvania went so far as to call for 33 storms – blowing past the record of 30 set in 2005 and 2020.

On the official opening day of the 2024 hurricane season, whether those projections will become reality is unknown – as is whether they will disrupt the charmed, storm-free existence Tampa Bay has enjoyed for more than a century. Over the past two weeks the Catalyst spoke to meteorologists, local officials and others to find out what we can expect, how communities are preparing – and whether it will be enough when (not if) The Big One comes.

Hurricane Amnesia

Florida history is defined by hurricanes. They are to this state what tornadoes were to Dorothy’s Kansas.

A storm at Fort Caroline in 1565 destroyed a French fleet and with it their efforts to colonize the state. The 1928 Okeechobee hurricane killed thousands of migrant laborers, inspiring the first major flood control efforts in South Florida – and Zora Neale Hurston’s great Florida novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 destroyed whole communities but resulted in almost no loss of life – a crucial passed test for a rapidly growing state.

For Tampa Bay, what is unique is not how much these storms have defined us, but how little. In 103 years no major hurricane has directly hit the region, and it still requires a trip into the hazy past to see the last time any hurricane made landfall. Both of these storms occurred before the invention of air conditioning – and Florida’s rapid all-year population growth. Tampa Bay has 11 residents today for every person who lived here in 1950.

Denis Phillips, ABC Action News’s longtime chief meteorologist, calls it “hurricane amnesia.”

“‘It missed us before, it will miss us again,’” he said, echoing the sentiments of many long-time residents. “So far, that’s worked out … but it won’t always be that way.

“Models are changing for the better,” he elaborates. “The short-term forecast track really is superior to what it was two decades ago. Unfortunately, the apathy many Floridians have hasn’t changed … and it probably won’t until someone actually faces the threat of a major hurricane. Once they face that, usually the apathy goes away forever.”

Stormchaser Mike Boylan, host of Mike’s Weather Page, whose daily hurricane season updates are viewed by thousands, remembers how his attitude towards storms changed once he began driving into them.

“Seeing the effects of storms right after [they hit] woke me up to how awful the conditions can be in so many different ways. I could never fathom before I saw it.”

For long-time residents like him, “We’ve evacuated so many times … my biggest fear is that the [next] time around, people aren’t going to evacuate. But there’s gonna be one time where it doesn’t turn.”

To elected officials responsible for planning for just that eventuality, this apathy is a source of frustration – and danger.

“We’ve been complacent for many years and [people] believe the Tocabaga are protecting us,” said Pinellas County Commissioner Kathleen Peters, referencing a popular myth relating to the presence of Indian burial grounds repelling hurricanes in the region.

“John’s Pass was created [by the hurricane] in 1848. We’re past due.”

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