In the days leading to Hurricane Ian’s landfall in Fort Myers, officials across Tampa Bay called for evacuations and warned those sticking around to stock up on essentials and brace for impact.
The hurricane tracking path had shown Ian heading straight toward Tampa, and weather experts predicted that hurricane-strength winds, record storm surge and heavy rainfall would combine to create a worst-case scenario for Tampa Bay.
Instead, it veered to the south and flattened downtown Fort Myers. It knocked out the bridge connecting Sanibel Island to the mainland.
It caused deaths, ravaged properties and resulted in billions of dollars in damage.
But what would have happened if it made a direct hit on Pasco County?
Andrew Fossa, the county’s emergency management director, recently laid out a scenario of what could have happened, during the Pasco County Commission’s March 21 meeting.
“Basically, what we did is, we took (Hurricane) Ian from Lee County and put it on the same course, same speed, same trajectory and inlaid the surge that would have happened in Pasco County,” Fossa told the county board. “The results are astronomical and devastating.”
The scenario he described involved a Category 4 hurricane, with a north by northwest trajectory, traveling at a speed of 10 mph and making landfall at peak high tide, with the center of the storm striking near Gulf Harbors.
Coastal areas in Pasco County would have experienced a storm surge of 20 feet above ground level, not sea level, he said. There would have been devastating flooding along the U.S. 19 corridor and extensive flooding, west of Little Road, he said.
People would have died and property losses would have been massive, Fossa added.
Other expected impacts: Destruction of critical infrastructure, serious environmental damage and significant tax revenue losses, the director of emergency management said.
Fossa shared video footage of the powerful storm surge that began hitting Fort Myers Beach six hours before Hurricane Ian’s eye crossed Lee County.
He told board members to pay attention to a red house in the video, which, as storm surge intensified, was lifted and carried away.
He pointed to a camera — attached to a pole 8 feet up in the air — being slapped by waves.
He showed palm trees engulfed by water.
A direct hit on Pasco
If Hurricane Ian had landed in Pasco, massive flooding would have occurred along the U.S. 19 corridor, from Aripeka to Anclote.
In some areas, the wall of water would have reached 21 feet, and “that’s not including the wave action on top of the surge,” Fossa said.
Between Aripeka and Bayonet Point, the flooding would average about 14 feet, but would top 21 feet in some places, he said.
“We would lose Bayonet (Point), which is a very key hospital in Pasco County. It’s a Level II trauma center. It’s a 320-bed facility,” Fossa said.
Floodwaters there would reach 17 feet — but Bayonet Point Hospital is just 15 feet above the ground, he said. The hospital’s evacuation plan calls for evacuating up, not out, he added.
“But with a storm like this — and we have talked to them — the recommendation would be to evacuate out because of the sheer wind force that would be behind that storm,” Fossa added
North Bay Hospital would have to evacuate, Fossa said.
“North Bay, it’s a 141-bed facility, it’s an acute care facility. They would have water up to their first floor and up, and higher,” Fossa said.
Floodwaters along the western coastal areas would range from about 13 feet to 21 feet; there would be inland flooding, too, according to a map contained in Fossa’s presentation.
Floodwaters near Little Road could range from 6 feet to 8 feet, causing millions of dollars in damage, Fossa added.
To further illustrate the dangers, Fossa showed video capturing dramatic scenes of destruction in Fort Myers.
He witnessed much of it first hand when he went to the area to help with emergency management operations.
Fossa saw a fire truck that had been picked up and pushed by floodwaters, into a building.
If a hurricane like Ian hit Pasco, “in essence, we would lose all of our fire stations on the west side of the county, along the U.S. 19 corridor,” Fossa said.
Hurricane winds and storm surge likely would wreak havoc with Infrastructure, too, he said.
“When I was in Lee County, the barrier islands were the worst hit, when it came to infrastructure. They lost sewage. They lost water. And they lost all communications.
“I was there three weeks and when I was leaving there, they still did not have water, sewage or communications.
“Fort Myers Beach, it was the same way. The infrastructure was all torn out. They lost generators, pump stations and all sorts of assets,” Fossa said.
Pasco didn’t get hit, but it is vulnerable
With a hurricane like Ian, the Anclote Electrical Plant would get about 20 feet of water — and, if that plant were destroyed, the disruption of services wouldn’t be days or weeks, it would be months, Fossa said.
Lengthy cleanups also would be required for environmental damages, Fossa said.
“When I was down there in Lee County, there was so much debris. The county couldn’t fathom how they were going to get all of this debris out of the water. Not only the boats, but the cars that were in there. There were buildings in there. Parts of houses in there. There was garbage in there.
“When I left there after three weeks, they hadn’t even thought of starting that process yet.”
Besides all of the destruction and disruption, Pasco’s revenues would take a hit, too, Fossa said.
He estimated lost revenues could mount up to about $140 million in lost revenues, annually.
County Administrator Mike Carballa said the county is keenly aware of work that needs to be done to put the county in a better position to reduce risks and to quicken recovery efforts.
“We are undertaking a vulnerability assessment currently. So that involves the cities, that involves the counties — in looking at those critical pieces of infrastructure that are vulnerable. “That kind of sets the stage for us to kind of chase after larger (grant) dollars.
“At the end of the day, protection of your critical infrastructure is super important because we can have great building codes, but Mother Nature can always out-design us on any type of storm.
“And so it turns into a recovery operation and how quickly the county can bounce back. Hence, resiliency and why you are seeing a lot more focus on that.
“We are forging ahead in this area because it’s important,” Carballa said.
Published March 29, 2023