Tampa, Now a Major Insurance, Financial Services Hub, Empties Out Ahead of Storm

September 27, 2022

Tampa, one of the fastest-growing financial services hubs in the US, began emptying in a matter of hours Monday after officials ordered an evacuation of the Gulf Coast Florida city and parts of the surrounding area before the worst storm to threaten the region in a century.

Banks, insurers and investment firms, including JPMorgan Chase, Fisher Investments and USAA, closed offices or allowed employees to work from home as Tampa, a metro area of 3.2 million people, prepared for the wrath of Hurricane Ian.

Local officials expect more than 300,000 people to evacuate areas close to Tampa Bay, which, forecasters say, could be slammed by a storm surge of five to 10 feet (3 meters). Many more firms closed voluntarily as Ian threatened to strike the area as soon as late Wednesday with winds up to 140 mph, according to the US National Hurricane Center.

Ian could still change course, sparing Tampa, but the city was taking no chances.

“My biggest concern is how big is this going to be,” said Steve Morey, senior vice president of economic development at the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council. “We’ve never seen one like this.”

Morey, who’s spent the last decade working to convince businesses to move to Tampa, had to leave his office in the Bank of America building in downtown Tampa after city officials imposed a mandatory evacuation. He took refuge at his home, 10 miles from Tampa Bay.

Related: Cat 4 Storm Could Mean $258 Billion in Reconstruction Costs

Miami gets a lot of publicity for being transformed into a Wall Street of the South, like investor Ken Griffin’s recent decision to move his roughly $50 billion Citadel hedge fund there. Yet Tampa has undergone a expansion in its own right, luring tens of thousands of jobs in fields like banking, investment management and insurance.

In the last five years, the finance and professional service industry has grown by 13%, or 40,000 jobs, in the Tampa area and now employs 344,000 people, according to the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council.

JP Morgan Chase, which has almost 6,000 employees across the Tampa region, sent employees an email giving them the option to work from home and highlighting how they should prepare and stay safe.

Insurer USAA closed its offices to allow its workers to prepare for the storm, as did Fisher Investments, which sent about 700 employees home. Citigroup Inc., which operates a sprawling campus in Tampa with roughly 8,400 workers, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Cathie Wood’s Ark Investments and Raymond James Financial, both headquartered in St. Petersburg, could not be reached for comment.

Millions across the Tampa-St. Petersburg area rushed to prepare for the storm. The evacuation order covered coastal swaths of three counties around Tampa and St. Petersburg– Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco. Schools and courts were ordered closed until at least Thursday, while St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport will shut down at 1 p.m. Tuesday, officials said.

Cars backed up for blocks as residents waited to fill free sandbags offered at city depots. Supermarkets were packed with shoppers looking for bottled water, batteries and canned food, and there were reports that some stores had run out of bottled water or were limiting purchases. And many motorists rushed to gas stations to top off their vehicles as the region braced for a storm that could be the worst to hit the city in 101 years, according to Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler with Enki Research.

Several storms have come close to Tampa, including Elsa last year and Irma in 2017, but the last devastating storm to hit Tampa-St. Petersburg was in 1921.

“Things are kind of wild in Tampa, and most people are in a panic mode,” said Trudy Azarsepandan, 42, a lawyer who, like most people, had to take her work home after her firm’s office closed. She and her husband were planning to take their 10-year-old son and seek refuge with friends in Miami, Atlanta, or even Nashville if, by Tuesday, it’s clear that Ian will slam into the city.

Azarsepandan, 42, grew up in Miami, and witnessed the devastation of Hurricane Andrew as a child, and said she has no desire to ride out a storm like Ian.

“It’s such a monster storm,” she said. ”We’re definitely going to evacuate.”

Ian’s approach also disrupted Tampa’s professional sports teams. The NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers moved operations to Miami to prepare for Sunday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs. And, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the city’s National Hockey League team, postponed preseason games on Wednesday and Thursday because of the approaching hurricane.

Diesel fuel demand to run generators soared more than 10-fold, mostly in Tampa, said Eliot Vancil, president of Fuel Logic, a distributor in the state. Statewide, nursing homes, supermarkets and hospitals are seeking fuel, but most of the demand is in and around Tampa, he said. There is no shortage of fuel but “there is a shortage of time to get it done” before Ian hits, he said.

Photo: Part of Downtown Tampa in a 2021 shot. (Phelan M. Ebenhack via AP)

Topics Windstorm

Was this article valuable?

Here are more articles you may enjoy.