Hurricane Irma is about to hit Tampa, a terrifyingly vulnerable city

The first predictions were that Hurricane Irma would hit Miami square-on. But the storm changed course as the weekend began: By Saturday morning, it appeared as if Tampa Bay, on Florida’s western Gulf Coast, was going be the major city hit hardest.

Tampa and the surrounding area, whose population is about four million, is not prepared for a storm of this magnitude. Too many homes and businesses are too close to the water, and coastal defenses are too few, for catastrophic damage to be avoided.

“The metropolitan area is the most vulnerable in the United States to flooding and damage if a major hurricane ever scores a direct hit,” Darryl Fears wrote in a richly reported Washington Post piece published in late July — a piece that terrifyingly anticipates the exact scenario the city may be about to experience.

Fears explains that, in 2010, Tampa’s regional planning council conducted a study on what would happen if a Category 5 hurricane, with winds around 156 mph, hit the area. This hypothetical hurricane, called Phoenix in the report, is actually slightly weaker than Irma was when it hit Cuba early this weekend. (Irma has since come down to Category 3, but but its anticipated to gain strength again before hitting Florida.)

The anticipated effects of an Category 5 hurricane hitting Tampa, as detailed by the report, are horrifying. You can read the full thing here, but here’s Fears’ summary of its conclusions:

This scenario remains horrifyingly plausible. A 2013 World Bank study ranked cities according to their vulnerability to major storms. Tampa ranked number seven — not among American cities, but among all cities in the world.

So Irma’s move away from Miami, which itself is poorly prepared to handle flooding, isn’t much of a blessing. Tampa is incredibly vulnerable — and has been less of a focus for preparations, since Irma’s worst effects were expected to be felt elsewhere in the state.

This storm is very, very scary.