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Joe Henderson: Houston’s horror could happen in Florida

in Statewide/The Bay and the 'Burg by

Like all of you, I have been mesmerized watching reports about the catastrophe in Texas from Hurricane Harvey. Just couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and couldn’t help thinking what it would be like if a storm like Harvey washed ashore from the mouth of Tampa Bay.

Florida got a taste of it last year when Hurricane Matthew snaked up the east coast, leaving an estimated 1 million people without power and causing $1.5 billion in damage. And that wasn’t a direct hit.

One of the news reports over the weekend focused on the urban sprawl in Houston and said that helped create this the carnage we’re seeing now.

Miles and miles of land that provided natural drainage has been paved over to create instant communities like Katy, just to the west of Houston. Now, the water has nowhere to go but inside thousands of living rooms.

I drove through Katy a few months ago as part of a Texas trip and couldn’t believe what I saw. They should call that place Concrete Katy, because if there was an open spot of land it looks like developers couldn’t wait to pave it over.

Its population is now estimated at 309,000 – more than the city of Pittsburgh. For perspective: the Katy area had about 140,000 in the year 2000. Annual population growth has been between 4 and 6 percent.

It reminded me a lot of the Brandon area, east of Tampa. People here claim that if Greater Brandon was incorporated into a single entity, it would be the fifth-largest city in Florida.

When I moved there in 1988 though, it was much different. It wasn’t unusual to see lots of green space and even grazing cattle. Much of that space is gone now, sold to make way for planned housing developments and big box stores.

That is setting us up for a nightmare.

Coastal areas in the Tampa Bay area, already saturated with development, would be devastated by a storm like Harvey. Tampa’s landmark Bayshore Boulevard would be gone, along with much of the city’s prized south side.

Stronger statewide building codes put in place after Hurricane Andrew might help more structures stay upright, but the flooding would be epic. The water just wouldn’t have anywhere to go, kind of like we’re seeing now in Houston.

The Washington Post recently sounded the alarm about what it says is the inevitable mass destruction that awaits the Tampa Bay area from a major hurricane.

As much as I hope state and local governments see this as a warning to ratchet up drainage projects and other things that could mitigate the damage, I don’t how much good it would really do. There has been too much unchecked and unplanned development,

I was thinking all that over the weekend – fearing for my in-laws in Houston, and wondering if, or when, it will be our turn to be in the eye of a storm like Harvey. Every day we get a little bit closer.

Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.

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