Tropical storm Eta was an interesting addition to the end of 2020 for us. Fortunately, it spared us a direct hit and made landfall as a tropical storm, even though it was a Category 1 hurricane off our coast for a brief period. Of course, it was far more dangerous when it hit Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane.
Over the many years that I’ve lived in Florida, I’ve seen a lot of tropical systems that had Southwest Florida within its forecast cone. I was pretty confident with forecast tracks when I first moved here.
When I was a newcomer, many people talked about the West Coast of Florida only getting hit by a hurricane every 40 years or so. Some used to say there’s mystical protections in place offshore that makes it impossible for storms to hit us. There’s been some strange hurricane theories over the years, but those days are long gone. We all know those theories have no merit.
I was living in Punta Gorda in 2004 when Hurricane Charley directly hit us as a powerful Category 4 hurricane. It was supposed to hit the Tampa Bay region until a few hours before making landfall in Charlotte County. There was a sudden change in path that surprised all of us. Many from the Tampa Bay area evacuated to inland locations that ended up in Charley’s path.
Charley also surprised many of us with its lack of storm surge. I thought for sure that we would have water in the streets due to the sheer strength of the hurricane. We did not. We were lucky that Charley’s devastation was limited to wind and rain damage.
After Charley, we learned more about storm surge and what causes it. Charley was a very small and powerful storm that moved quickly. It moved over us at 25 mph. As we’ve seen, that’s very unusual for a hurricane. According to NOAA, a hurricane’s average forward speed is 11-12 mph. A fast-moving storm like Charley didn’t have the time or size to generate storm surge.
Last year, Hurricane Dorian barely moved forward. It was over the northern Bahamas for more than two days with a storm surge of up to 28 feet. We all witnessed the news coverage following that storm. It was probably one of the most devastating hurricane landfalls and surges in history.
Tropical storm Eta was more than 100 miles off our coast with near-hurricane force wind and we experienced storm surge. Just after 10 p.m. at high tide on Veterans Day, many residents had water well over their seawalls. That’s something many have never seen in Charlotte and Sarasota counties.
I think back to Hurricane Irma in 2017. That was a storm that had me deeply concerned about the entire West Coast of Florida. My greatest fear was the impact of a powerful hurricane moving just offshore up the entire coastline of Florida’s West Coast. Irma had the potential to be that storm. It was a storm with a constantly changing forecast path. Fortunately, it turned and went inland. Many from Collier County will probably disagree with me, since Irma landed there. If it didn’t, the devastating storm surge from Naples to Tampa could’ve been one of the worst in Florida’s history.
I’ve talked to many people over the years who think flood insurance is a waste of money. Some think their homes will never be flooded, despite being in a high-risk flood zone. Some take the risk due to cost. Many cannot afford the flood insurance. There’s always fear that new FEMA maps mean even higher flood insurance rates. It’s likely.
Tropical Storm Eta’s storm surge showed us that we need to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. To find out more about protecting your home from flooding go to www.fema.gov/flood-insurance.