Saying that the magnitude of Hurricane Irma has the potential to be a storm “unlike anything that we have ever seen,” Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn declared a state of emergency late Wednesday morning.
“I cannot urge this enough: Have a plan, and now is the time to execute that plan. Friday or Saturday or Sunday, it is too late,” Buckhorn said at a news conference held at City Hall, where he was flanked by top officials in his administration.
In the past 24 hours, however, it has become difficult for some Tampa residents to prepare for their “plan,” since bottled water and even gasoline has been limited in some parts of the city.
By declaring a state of emergency, Buckhorn now has the power to call for a curfew in the city, a right he said he would only do based on the circumstances of the storm, which is expected to hit Florida sometime between Sunday and Monday. Of course, where the storm lands is still undetermined at this time. While forecasters say the track of Irma continues to shift east, the mayor said he expected that the city would get hit with a “prodigious amount of rain.”
Buckhorn was explicit in saying that the worst could happen to those who don’t properly evaluate the severity of the situation.
“If you think that you can be in a flood zone A and think that you’re going to hunker down? Big mistake. Big mistake. We will be coming for you in a bodybag,” he said.
“And so, for those folks who are not from here, this ain’t Indiana. This is serious stuff. And you will die if you’re not careful, if you don’t take the appropriate steps.”
Emergency manager Tom Forward also put it starkly.
“No one is going to take better care of you than you,” he said. “You are going to take of yourselves.”
Brad Baird, the city’s administrator of public works and utility services, said his department has been practicing for an event like Irma for over 15 years, “and now it’s time to execute it.”
Baird said the city has contractors ready to help in removing and clearing debris after rate storm hits. He said that the city has lowered all pond levels in anticipation of flooding, and have cleaned out stormwater inlets, pipelines and culverts of debris.
The city of Tampa’s issues with stormwater are a normal issue in the summer when the rains hit. That’s why Buckhorn was able to get the City Council to approve $251 million in a drainage improvement program a year ago. Baird said that has allowed the city to clean out the stormwater system “like it’s never been cleaned out before.”
Interim Police Chief Brian Dugan said there would be an all-hands-on-deck situation with police personnel this weekend, with everybody working 12-hour shifts. He also said that it was important for every city resident to listen to Buckhorn and take heed with his warnings.
“We need to have a sense of urgency in leaving, but at the same time we need to remain calm and not panic,” he said. “It’s very important that everybody think this through, and where they’re going and how they’re going to get there. And that we look out for each other and that we stay calm.”
The Hillsborough County School Board has canceled all classes on Thursday and Friday, a move that Buckhorn applauded.
“We are asking our customers to be prepared for power outages that could last for several days, depending on the severity of the storm,” said Tampa Electric spokesperson Cherie Jacobs.
Officials with Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace were scheduled to meet with Hillsborough County officials at the Public Safety Operations Complex in Tampa at 3PM this afternoon.