Ian-like storm would devastate West Pasco

In the days that followed Hurricane Ian’s catastrophic landfall in Fort Myers last September, Pasco County’s emergency management director, Andrew Fossa, spent three weeks in the area assisting with the storm response.

In the midst of the devastation, he met survivors, including one woman who stayed in her mobile home with her quadriplegic husband while storm surge surrounded them. She had to hold him above the 4-foot-high waves for hours.

Asked if she would make a different decision on evacuating if faced with another storm, she said no. To Fossa, the comment told him how conflicted coastal residents are about evacuations.

Several weeks ago, Fossa drove commission chairperson Jack Mariano around Pasco to show him how Ian would have affected the county. He shared details this week with the full commission. He said damage from an Ian-caliber storm in Pasco County would be “astronomical and devastating.” He also showed local examples in hopes of dispelling any wishful thinking about how Pasco would fare.

If a Category 4 hurricane made landfall in the waterfront community of Gulf Harbors at high tide, he predicted flooding 20 feet above ground level. The effect would likely include devastating loss of life, property and environmental damage, lengthy waits while power and other essential services are restored and the loss of millions in long-term tax revenue.

In Fort Myers, Fossa saw a 7-Eleven store with only its columns and sign remaining. He showed a photo of the shell of a Fort Myers Beach fire station that was destroyed by the storm. Fossa said Pasco has eight public safety sites in the danger zone, including police and fire stations in the cities of Port Richey and New Port Richey.

The two west-side Pasco hospitals, 320-bed, level-two trauma center HCA Florida Bayonet Point and 141-bed Morton Plant North Bay, would each suffer flooding. Fossa said that Bayonet Point is built up and has a long-standing “evacuate up” rather than “evacuate out” policy. But he said after seeing the wind damage in Fort Myers, he has encouraged a change in strategy to get staff and patients out of the hospital. He said flooding at the hospital site could reach 17 feet.

North Bay Morton Plant Hospital is in a low-lying area near the Pithlachascotee River. It would see the ground floor flooded. He said the midcounty area could see water levels reach 21 feet.

West Pasco is also dotted with important infrastructure, from power plants to sewer and water centers and communications equipment.

Since a storm of the theoretical strength of Ian could bring flooding around Little Road of as much 8 feet, Fossa estimated that the hit on overall annual tax revenue for Pasco could top $147 million. He also showed photos of what typical West Pasco homes in areas not considered flood zones see in major rains now, with streets and yards looking like lakes.

The Anclote Power Plant could see 20 feet of water, while local marinas would likely look like those in the Fort Myers, with boats and buildings splintered into unrecognizable chunks.

Mariano said he appreciated Fossa’s perspective and presentation. “It’s important for us to know what those effects would have been” if Ian were a Pasco hurricane, he said. Mariano said he wanted the county to work on building up the Anclote Power Plant, finding new revenue to switch septic systems to sewers and raising more vulnerable coastal housing.

Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said she was sorry to see that more of Pasco doesn’t bury utility lines since communities in the path of storms fare better when lines aren’t above ground.

County Administrator Mike Carballa told commissioners that his staff is working with the west Pasco cities to study vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure so that if anything happens, there is a strategy to minimize the time it would take to get important services back on track.

Being prepared is important, Carballa said, because the county might follow the current codes, but “Mother Nature can always out-design us on any storm.”