Tampa's Phoenix Simulation Anticipated Category 5 Hurricane

This Sept. 26, 2022, satellite image released by NASA shows Hurricane Ian growing stronger as it barreled toward Cuba. Ian was forecast to hit the western tip of Cuba as a major hurricane and then become an even stronger Category 4 with top winds of 140 mph (225 km/h) over warm Gulf of Mexico waters before striking Florida. (NASA Worldview/Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS) via AP)
This Sept. 26, 2022, satellite image released by NASA shows Hurricane Ian growing stronger as it barreled toward Cuba. Ian was forecast to hit the western tip of Cuba as a major hurricane and then become an even stronger Category 4 with top winds of 140 mph (225 km/h) over warm Gulf of Mexico waters before striking Florida. (NASA Worldview/Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS) via AP)
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In ominous tones, a documentary narrator describes the devastation wrought on the Tampa Bay, Fla. area by “Phoenix,” a tropical storm that grew into a Category 5 hurricane.

More than 160 deaths with 30,000 missing people. Upwards of 300,000 people seeking shelter. As much as $200 billion in building damage.

“The devastation to the region is almost unimaginable,” the narrator intones.

Phoenix was imaginary, part of a 2009 government preparation exercise for a killer hurricane dubbed Project Phoenix — an exercise updated in 2020 focusing on small business recovery.

Though the storm and a 10-minute documentary were fictional, the warnings have taken on special significance this week as the nightmare envisioned by Project Phoenix approaches in the form of the very real Hurricane Ian.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Florida Department of Emergency Management sponsored the 2009 simulation to identify gaps in local emergency planning and figure out responses across jurisdictions, Randy Deshazo, Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council chief of staff, said Tuesday in an email.

The tabletop exercise imagined a direct strike from a Category 5 hurricane. With help from WFLA-TV, the project created a video combining simulated weather reports and archived video footage from other storms.

Emergency managers across Florida have used Project Phoenix in training exercises, Deshazo said.

By identifying areas of hurricane prep weakness and building cooperation across jurisdictions, Phoenix was useful in “strengthening regional ‘muscle memory’ for emergency response that I think will prove itself in the wake of Ian,” Deshazo said.

The 2020 update, Project Phoenix 2.0, examined the issues facing Tampa Bay area small businesses and emergency management agencies during disaster recovery. The update drew on lessons experienced by Mexico Beach, Florida, business owners devastated by 2018's Hurricane Michael.

“Have all your business documents somewhere that you can take with you,” a sports fishing guide recommends in the updated video. “Have an exit plan — what you're you’re going to do, how you’re going to shut your business down to go through the storm.”

The 2009 simulation suggested catastrophic damage, including to Port Tampa Bay — then known as the Port of Tampa — awash in a toxic stew of chemicals and petroleum released from damaged storage tanks.

It predicted damage to more than two-thirds of hospitals, closed bridges hampering rescue efforts, and the region inundated with 48 million tons of debris.

But the exercise also closed on a note of optimism by providing a roadmap to recovery.

“We can rebuild our houses, schools, businesses and infrastructure,” the 2009 documentary's narrator says.

“But we have to work together. The key to recovery is to have a regional plan in place long before disaster strikes.”

After making landfall in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province Tuesday, Ian was expected to grow even stronger over the warm Gulf of Mexico, reaching top winds of 130 mph (209 kph) as it approaches the southwest coast of Florida, where 2.5 million people were ordered to evacuate.

Tropical storm-force winds were expected across the southern peninsula late Tuesday, reaching hurricane-force Wednesday — when the hurricane’s eye was predicted to make landfall. With tropical storm-force winds extending 115 miles (185 kilometers) from Ian’s center, damage was expected across a wide area of Florida.

It was not yet clear precisely where Ian would crash ashore.