Di­vine in­ter­ven­tion?

Some Tampa res­i­dents as­cribe good for­tune to Na­tive Amer­i­can bless­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY DARRYL FEARS darryl.fears@wash­post.com

Some Tampa res­i­dents see more than luck in Irma’s near-miss.

tampa — When the wind stopped howl­ing out­side the house where Raquel Her­nan­dez rode out Hur­ri­cane Irma with her frail grand­mother, she calmly stepped out a side door, grabbed a small broom, and swept leaves off the drive­way.

Oth­ers were sur­prised the storm hadn’t flushed the city away, as many ex­perts pre­dicted, but not Her­nan­dez. As she swept, she re­called what an el­derly friend told her when she ar­rived from New York 15 years ago: Tampa Bay was pro­tected from storms. A Na­tive Amer­i­can tribe blessed the area long ago to pro­tect an­cient burial grounds.

“We were spared,” Her­nan­dez said. “This was noth­ing.”

Tampa Bay is one of the most vul­ner­a­ble metropoli­tan ar­eas in the world to a ma­jor hur­ri­cane. How did it man­age to avoid an­other mon­ster storm that seemed des­tined to strike it? Many res­i­dents here have turned to myth and junk science to ex­plain a near-cen­tury of good for­tune.

As cities to the south strug­gled with mas­sive dam­age from winds and flood­ing, Tampa Bay con­tended pri­mar­ily with power out­ages that lasted a few days. Its res­i­dents ex­pressed sym­pa­thy for Irma’s vic­tims while speak­ing con­fi­dently about their “per­fect place,” their “sanc­tu­ary” and their “sweet spot” that hasn’t been struck by a hur­ri­cane as pow­er­ful as a Cat­e­gory 3 since 1921.

Irma’s eye was di­rectly in line with Tampa and St. Peters­burg — Florida’s third- and fourth-largest cities in the state’s se­cond-most­pop­u­lous re­gion — when it left Cuba as a Cat­e­gory 3 hur­ri­cane. But af­ter wreak­ing havoc in the Florida Keys, Naples and Mi­ami, Irma weak­ened and limped to the east of Tampa Bay as a man­age­able Cat­e­gory 1.

Leonard McCue, who lives in the flood-prone Old North­east com­mu­nity on St. Peters­burg’s coast, said he has never ex­pe­ri­enced a ma­jor hur­ri­cane in 40 years. “I’m con­vinced that geo­graph­i­cally we’re in­ca­pable of be­ing hit with a storm. It just never seems to hap­pen,” he said.

Chris Wil­liams, who lives in a newly pur­chased house off Bonita Bay, had the same thought. “I’m a skep­tic. I’ve lived here 34 years, and I’ve yet to see a hur­ri­cane hit us. I think we’re in the per­fect spot,” he said.

Jeanne Isacco re­luc­tantly evac­u­ated her St. Peters­burg home, where a pic­ture win­dow looks out on seabirds plung­ing for fish in the wide blue bay. “If we get a di­rect hit from a hur­ri­cane com­ing right at us, we’d be idiots to stay here, but it just hasn’t hap­pened,” she said. “We’ve not had an evac­u­a­tion for nine years be­fore this. We’ve had sev­eral hur­ri­canes come through. We cer­tainly haven’t had a catas­tro­phe like the Florida Pan­han­dle and other ar­eas.”

In the West Shore area of Tampa, Her­nan­dez only vaguely re­called what her friend said about the Na­tive burial grounds years, com­pletely un­aware that at least some of the story is real. To­cobaga In­dian mounds have been found be­tween Safety Har­bor, their an­ces­tral home, and the Gandy area, a 15-mile stretch along the bay in Pinel­las County.

The To­coba­gans died out from dis­ease and vi­o­lence from Span­ish con­querors in the 1500s, and it’s not clear why the mounds were built, though some were for buri­als. It’s also not clear that they blessed them for pro­tec­tion against hur­ri­canes, but the story has become legend. Two days af­ter the hur­ri­cane, the Tampa Bay Times rec­og­nized it in a story: “Did lo­cal In­dian mounds save Tampa Bay from Irma’s worst? Some say yes.”

That be­lief is not shared by sci­en­tists or the area’s top politicians. In fact, they see dan­ger in con­fi­dence based on su­per­sti­tion, which might make it harder to per­suade res­i­dents to evac­u­ate when a fu­ture mon­ster hur­ri­cane ap­proaches.

“I have no doubt that we will get hit,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buck­horn (D), who warned as Irma ap­proached that his city was about to get punched in the face. “We’re not pro­tected. We’re no more vul­ner­a­ble than any­one else in the state of Florida. We’ve just had the good for­tune of not hav­ing been hit, but there’s noth­ing we do or don’t do that’s go­ing to stop that.”

St. Peters­burg Mayor Rick Krise­man (D) said: “What we dodged is in­cred­i­ble. All you have to do is look at Naples and the Keys. Naples had wind gusts of 142 miles per hour.” The same winds would have wreaked havoc on St. Peters­burg. “We’re a penin­sula on the Florida penin­sula. I feel in­cred­i­bly for­tu­nate for us.”

Tampa Bay didn’t come out of the storm largely un­scathed be­cause of Na­tive Amer­i­can rit­u­als and a Caribbean land con­fig­u­ra­tion that amounts to a block­ade against hur­ri­canes, sci­en­tists said. Its good for­tune was pure chance.

The storm weak­ened as it raked Cuba. As Irma ap­proached South­west Florida, where its eye would fall was a guess­ing game, said Mark Luther, a Univer­sity of South Florida oceanog­ra­pher who stud­ied Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Administration data show­ing Irma’s strength and path.

Even with weaker winds, “If it veers to the left of us, we’re go­ing to get ham­mered,” Luther said, be­cause the storm would lift the shal­low waters of the bay and shove as much as 12 feet of wa­ter on land. But it stayed to the east.

“The storm also moved quickly through the area so that the winds didn’t have time to push as much wa­ter to­ward the coast and up the bay,” Luther said.

The most strik­ing fea­ture of the storm for the Tampa Bay area seemed su­per­nat­u­ral: a neg­a­tive surge that sucked wa­ter out of the bay, drop­ping sea level six feet lower than the nor­mal tide and ex­pos­ing the bot­tom in some ar­eas.

“We were very lucky to have es­caped ma­jor dam­age,” Luther said.

Elaine New be­lieves the area might have more go­ing for it than luck. Along with home­own­ers in­sur­ance, flood in­sur­ance and an evac­u­a­tion plan, she says some­thing higher ap­pears to be at work.

“For what­ever rea­son, we’re pro­tected. I think peo­ple of faith here are pray­ing for our pro­tec­tion,” she said. “You would think with Pinel­las County be­ing sur­rounded by wa­ter we’re at greater risk.”

The two may­ors didn’t com­pletely dis­avow di­vine in­ter­ven­tion. Buck­horn said the storm pre­vented him from tak­ing a sched­uled trip to Is­rael, where he hoped to visit the Wail­ing Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem and in­sert a prayer: “Please pro­tect us from storms.”

That’s the same prayer Rep. Char­lie Crist (D-Fla.), the for­mer gover­nor who now rep­re­sents St. Peters­burg and Pinel­las County, in­serted in the wall on at least two vis­its to Is­rael, Krise­man re­called.

McCue said it was Irma that didn’t have a prayer. He was so sure the storm would break apart on the Caribbean is­lands that he con­sid­ered stay­ing in his house, about half a foot­ball field from the coast.

“I was the one who made him leave,” said his wife, Bar­bara, as they strolled a side­walk near a crowd watch­ing dol­phins frolic.

“I’m a gun­slinger,” the hus­band said. “She’s the other side of me. I’m es­pe­cially dis­ap­pointed with this one,” he said of Irma. “We left and came back, and I ex­pected to see de­bris in my lawn.”

Even Trop­i­cal Storm Her­mine last year left coastal flood­ing so deep that chil­dren were able to swim in an area usu­ally cov­ered by grass, McCue said.

“They made it seem like it was go­ing to be the end of the world,” Her­nan­dez said at her grand­mother’s house in Tampa. But the power never left.

“It flick­ered, and that was it,” she said. “The In­di­ans helped us again.”

ADREES LATIF/REUTERS

Rony Or­donez, left, Jean Deje­sus, cen­ter, and Henry Gal­lego take photos in front of the Tampa skyline Sept. 10 af­ter walk­ing into Hills­bor­ough Bay ahead of Irma. The storm had sucked wa­ter out of the bay.

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