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Date of Issue: October 06, 2005

Hurricane Katrina for Anna Maria Island? A question of when, not if

hurricane pictures
hurricane pictures
History not on Island's side
NOAA has tracked 19 Category 3 or higher hurricanes that have passed within 60 miles of Anna Maria Island (center square of map) in the past 155 years.
hurricane pictures
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's computer model for flooding in the Bradenton area in a Category 4 hurricane shows Anna Maria Island would be under at least 11.2 feet of water. Graphics: Courtesy of NOAA

An island covered with 5 to 10 feet of mud and devoid of any signs of life. Majestic homes and historic buildings reduced to unrecognizable piles of rubbish. Roads and bridges smashed as easily as a Lego set. A 15-foot-high storm surge moving 10 miles inland to the interstate highway, or beyond, devastating everything in its wake. Winds of 150 miles per hour toppling light poles like matchsticks, tearing up railroad tracks. destroying bridges and flooding entire towns.

Sounds like Hurricane Katrina that recently struck the Louisiana-Mississippi Gulf Coast, right?

Actually, that's the description that experts with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration give for Anna Maria Island and Bradenton when a Category 4 hurricane such as Katrina makes landfall just north of the Island.

And it's not a question of if, but when, said meteorologist Dan Noah of the NOAA's Ruskin office.

"The storm surge would be 11 feet of water, plus 5 more feet from the wind," said Noah. If the storm hit at high tide, the surge would be even greater.

In other words, expect at least a 16-foot storm surge to wash over the Island.

"The surge would scour the Island clean," predicted Noah. "Even a tall building would have its first floor knocked out." Single-story block and wood homes would simply be pulverized or washed off their foundations into the bays. People in the newer stilt houses might be lucky and have just their ground floor flooded and the structure might survive the storm, he said, emphasizing "might."

The storm surge wouldn't stop at the Island.

Katrina's surge pushed about 20 miles inland, and was still 16 feet when it was 13 miles from shore.

When Katrina hits here, downtown Bradenton would be under about 11 feet of water, said Noah, and areas directly south of Bradenton near Sarasota would be covered with 14 feet of water. The surge would cover all land areas west of Interstate 75 and would push the Braden River back into low-lying areas.

"All those areas would have to be evacuated," Noah said, and that's just because of the storm surge.

 The accompanying 131-155 mph winds would destroy nearly all the vegetation on Anna Maria Island and blow the roofs off of almost all structures.

Together, the storm surge and wind would cut the Island in half. The mud left by the surge would render the Island uninhabitable for quite some time. Damages would be in the billions of dollars and life would never be the same after the storm hits - if people could even return to the Island.

People who stayed on the Island in the inane belief they could ride out a Category 4 hurricane would be in serious jeopardy. "You would be playing Russian roulette and likely would no longer be with us" after the storm passed, Noah said.

When Hurricane Charley in 2004 was forecast to make landfall at the mouth of Tampa Bay directly north of Anna Maria Island, some Islanders decided to ride out the storm.

Noah said those people took their lives into their own hands and it was only because Charley took a slight turn to the east as it approached Port Charlotte that Anna Maria Island was spared.

In addition to making that right turn, Charley's eyewall was only 10 miles wide. Katrina's was 60 miles wide, causing total destruction along 25 miles of Mississippi's Gulf Coast.

If you want to picture what the Island will look like after a Category 4 hurricane, just look at the pictures of that area of Mississippi, he said. "That's a pretty good comparison."

And don't think it's never going to happen here or that NOAA is just guessing.

The agency has computer models of the tracks of all the hurricanes that have struck Tampa Bay and Florida since 1850. In the past 155 years, 19 Category 3 or higher hurricanes have passed within 60 miles of Anna Maria Island, including the unnamed Category 3 hurricane of 1921. In 1950, Hurricane Easy came close to making a direct hit on the Island, but fortunately stayed out in the Gulf of Mexico.

Hurricanes come in cycles. While NOAA does not subscribe to the popular media theory that more catastrophic hurricanes are occurring because of global warming, they do say the Atlantic basin is in a "peak" cycle of hurricane activity. Historically, these cycles seem to occur every 20 to 25 years. And Category 4 and Category 5 hurricanes striking Florida are also an historical fact.

And don't complain too much about the lack of rain in the area during September. That high pressure that sat over Florida during the month that kept the traditional rains away also held the tracks of Katrina and Rita south of Florida and pushed them to the west before they turned north.

Without that high pressure system, Florida stood a good chance of being hit.

So, it might be this hurricane season, it might be next year, or it might not happen for 100 years, said Noah. But sooner or later, a Katrina-like hurricane is going to come up the mouth of Tampa Bay with Anna Maria Island on its east - most powerful - side.

Noah's advice when it happens: "Evacuate," and do it quickly.