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Tampa Bay still vulnerable to flooding despite major upgrades

Hundreds of millions have been spent on upgrades, but a major storm is still a threat.
Credit: Kevin Carlson, WTSP
Flooding in South Tampa at Fountain Blvd. & Audubon Avenue. Cars stalled going through waters of unknown depth.

TAMPA, Fla. -- Ask anyone who drives in South Tampa. When it comes to flooding, they all know the usual suspects.

The city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods were exposed when record rainfall fell in August 2015, leaving cars stranded and homes and businesses flooded.

Since then, Tampa had passed a new set of taxes and fees allowing it to implement a 10-year plan – a total of $251 million for cleanup and construction.

Several projects are already underway, expanding capacity.

In addition to construction, maintenance projects will keep water moving.

“We have cleaned out outfalls to the tune of about 600 tons of material,” said Tampa Public Works Administrator Brad Baird. “We cleaned out ponds of almost 400 tons of material. All to make the system function better.”

Aside from construction, Tampa improvements in just the first year and a half include:

  • 18.8 miles of stormwater ditch grading
  • 136.8 miles of stormwater pipe inspections and cleaning
  • 20,473 curb miles swept
  • 6,944 tons of debris swept up

In St. Petersburg, the same floodwaters overwhelmed the city's sewers.

Areas that typically flood, like Shore Acres on the city’s west side, were isolated for days.

Since then, St. Pete has also spent millions to expand capacity.

“We are getting bigger collector pipes,” said St. Petersburg Public Works spokesman Bill Logan. “We're maintaining areas that we can have the waters go into so that it doesn't, you know, back up.”

There are some who question whether any of these improvements will matter because there are some issues that simply cannot be addressed.

Take, for example, flooding along Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard. It happens like clockwork when the drainage pipes, which are designed to dump the runoff directly into the Hillsborough River, are blocked by high tide waters.

South Tampa elevation is 4 feet. So, 6 feet of tide or storm surge, and the water has no place to go.

Even without a hurricane, the long-term projection for rising water is not good for the Tampa Bay Area.

NASA scientists say climate change leaves the region vulnerable to higher tides and flooding rainstorms.

“More ocean heat corresponds to more water vapor, corresponds to the possibility of more intense rain events when conditions are ripe as they are during a hurricane,” said NASA Senior Scientist Timothy Hall.

Officials concede that little if any of what's being done -- hundreds of millions of dollars being spent -- is going to spare residents from a direct hit by a major hurricane.

It will relieve the typical daily dose of standing rainwater by helping inundated areas dry out faster.

But a storm surge of just 10 feet puts most of Tampa Bay’s coastal drainage systems under water. And that is something no amount of money, or preparation can change.

“For an afternoon storm in the summertime, it will be sized to handle that,” said Baird. “Will it be sized to handle a Cat 3 hurricane with high tide where parts of the system can't drain at all until the tide goes down? No.”

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