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Irma Hits Tampa But Mayor Buckhorn Says It Could Have Been Worse


This morning, we have been listening to voices from Florida, people sharing personal stories about Hurricane Irma. Teresa Foskey (ph) was with her husband and kids in Cape Coral as Irma passed. She told us about the scene they were waking up to this morning.

TERESA FOSKEY: It's very windy outside. I'm starting to see a few cars on the road, which was very weird because all of yesterday, it was, like, very eerie with no cars anywhere. I still hear generators for people because we still were out of power.

GREENE: All right, that voice from Cape Coral, which is just south of the city of Tampa. And that is where we find Tampa's mayor, Bob Buckhorn, who is on the line. He put a curfew in place last night. He called his city ground zero for Irma.

Mayor, good morning.

BOB BUCKHORN: Good morning.

GREENE: So how bad was this storm for your city?

BUCKHORN: Well, it could've been a lot worse than what it was. I mean, we had anticipated literally staring into the abyss about eight hours ago. Fortunately, it took a turn away from Tampa. And the end result is, I think we got - instead of a punch in the face, we got a glancing blow, and we are still in there fighting.

Our officers - police officers have been out since about 2:00 last night. Tampa Fire Rescue's been out. We're doing damage assessments. We are sweeping the neighborhoods to see where there are issues. The curfew still remains in place, but I'm hoping to be able to lift the curfew in fairly short order so people can get home. But I think, all things considered, we were very fortunate, and I am thankful for that, David, yeah.

GREENE: Well, that's very good to hear. Mayor, where are you right now? There's a lot of activity going on around you.

BUCKHORN: Yeah, I'm at the Emergency Operations Center. I have been here for two days. I slept on the floor here last night for about an hour, as did everyone else in this office. There's probably 100 of us here and another couple thousand that are out on the streets, ready for daylight to come so we can get in there and get this city back on its feet again.

GREENE: You must be exhausted.

BUCKHORN: I think I'm beyond exhausted, David. But, you know, this is what we trained for. This is when government really matters. This is when people need us. They may criticize us another 364 days out of the year, but on days like this, they need us to be at our best. And these folks behind me have really lived up to that, and I couldn't be prouder of them.

GREENE: So what are you most worried about at this point? I mean, you say it was just a glancing blow, but you've got to get out there and see what's - what issues there are. What issues are you worried about?

BUCKHORN: Well, there's really three. It's damage from the winds. I don't think we got a lot of structural damage here in Tampa. I can't speak for other parts of Florida. I think the rain has saturated the ground. I don't sense that there's a lot of standing water or flooding areas, based on the reports I've been getting from the police officers that are out there. We've hit the high tide mark.

And so I don't know that surge will be nearly what we were fearful that it would be. And so the flooding will be minimized. So I think all things considered, it's about getting the roads clear, getting the power resurrected and restored to people so that they can get back in their houses. Obviously, it's hot here. I can promise you that we spend two days in a house with air conditioning here, and you're not going to be a happy camper.

GREENE: Yeah, with the power out - that doesn't sound very pleasant in the heat.

BUCKHORN: No, it is not.

GREENE: Can I just ask you, Mayor - I mean, your city is considered incredibly vulnerable to a potential hurricane. You - a lot of people say you've been lucky to not get one over the years because of the flooding risk.

You've also been investing a lot in building new condominiums and new structures that are in places that, if there were a storm that was as catastrophic as this one might have been, there could be a tremendous amount of destruction. Are you going to learn a lesson here in terms of planning and helping Tampa be more prepared for the big one?

BUCKHORN: You know, David, I think we learn every time we go through one of these. And you're absolutely right. For 90-plus years, we have dodged this bullet. Tampa has been very fortunate. But we also knew that at some point, our number was up. I was fearful that this was that time, that we couldn't beat the house any longer, and that this was going to be our fateful day.

And fortunately, it turned out not to be the case. Now, all that being said, we train all year long to be ready for days like this. And we know they're coming. We know sooner or later we're going to take a direct hit. And as a result of that, we train as if we were living in Miami or the Keys. And so our team was ready. This is Florida.

GREENE: It is indeed.

BUCKHORN: People want to live on the water, and they will continue to build on the water. And I think - the new building codes, I think, have protected and hardened a lot of the new construction. I think not acknowledging climate change at the federal level is a huge disservice to those of us who have to deal with it every day. And I think an infrastructure bill is desperately needed to help us build our infrastructure to sustain this.

GREENE: All right, Bob Buckhorn is the mayor of Tampa, Fla. Mayor, good luck getting your city back going again, and I hope you get some sleep.

BUCKHORN: Thanks, David, appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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