Jay Barnes: Hurricanes and Politics

Florida's Hurricane History, Second Edition, by Jay BarnesAs Tropical Storm Isaac and the Republican Party both converge on Tampa within the next few days, we welcome this guest post from hurricane expert Jay Barnes, author of Florida’s Hurricane History.

Thus far, Tropical Storm Issac has captured significant attention this hurricane season, as the first storm to show potential for threatening the U.S. with hurricane force. Of course, a lot remains to be seen about its forecast track, and particularly how much energy it can muster after dragging across Haiti and Cuba before heading our way. It’s early, and the news media in particular wants to get in front of the story, but at this point Issac could end up as an uneventful rainmaker across southwest Florida and perhaps a category-one hurricane on the panhandle coast.

It’s not likely to be an epic event in our hurricane history, though as all hurricane aficionados will tell you, even tropical storms or category-ones can be deadly and destructive. Just ask anyone from eastern North Carolina through New England who suffered heavy damages from Hurricane Irene last year.

Tropical Storm Isaac, 5pm Friday 082412, NOAA graphic
Tropical Storm Isaac, 5pm Friday 082412, NOAA graphic

Much of the news coverage for Issac has focused on Tampa, host city for the Republican National Convention set to get underway on Monday. There’s good reason to focus attention on Tampa too, because along with the entire Tampa Bay area, it is the U.S. city most vulnerable to a major hurricane.

What? Not New Orleans? Well, for a variety of reasons, Tampa has more at stake. It has a considerably larger metropolitan population, a more challenging evacuation situation, and a complacent citizenry that has never experienced a direct hit from a hurricane in its collective lifetime.

In late summer 1935, Tampa was embroiled in perhaps its greatest period of political turmoil. A corrupt city government was at odds with a rival party, and violence disrupted public meetings and opposition rallies. It was all about to come to a head with municipal elections scheduled for September 2. National Guard troops were called into the city to prevent riots. But on Election Day the city was hit with the remnants of the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, the category-five monster that killed hundreds in the Florida Keys. It tracked northward into the Tampa area, and arrived just in time to thwart political violence. With meager voter turnout due to high winds and heavy rains, Mayor Robert E. Lee Chancy was re-elected, reforms were adopted, and Tampa climbed its way out of the Great Depression.

Will Issac disrupt the convention next week? Quite possibly. Could the Democratic National Convention scheduled for Charlotte after Labor Day be affected by an approaching storm? Maybe. But aside from any specific tropical event, the forecast calls for political winds to continue gusting right into November.

Jay Barnes is director of development for the North Carolina Aquarium Society. He is author of four books on hurricanes, including Florida’s Hurricane History and North Carolina’s Hurricane History (the fourth edition of which will be published in 2013). He often appears on media outlets such as The Weather Channel, NBC Nightly News, and The Discovery Channel.