(Bloomberg) -- Tampa, one of the fastest-growing financial services hubs in the US, emptied after officials ordered a massive evacuation ahead of the worst storm to threaten the Gulf Coast Florida city in a century.
Tens of thousands of workers at banks, insurers and investment firms headed home as Tampa, a metro area of 3.2 million people, prepared for the wrath of Hurricane Ian. Companies including JPMorgan Chase & Co., MetLife Inc., Fisher Investments, Raymond James Financial Inc. and USAA, closed offices or asked employees to work remotely if possible.
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.
“The impacts are going to be far, far broader than just where the eye of the storm happens to make landfall,” Governor Ron DeSantis said in a briefing Tuesday. “In some areas there will be catastrophic flooding and life-threatening storm surge.”
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 Monday afternoon after city officials imposed a mandatory evacuation. He took refuge at his home, 10 miles from Tampa Bay.
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 past 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.
JPMorgan Chase, which has almost 6,000 employees across the Tampa region, sent workers home. Raymond James, which is based in St. Petersburg, near Tampa, will close its offices Wednesday, sending 5,200 workers home. Insurer MetLife Inc. urged its 1,000 employees in Tampa to work from home if possible.
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, couldn’t 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, leading officials to turn people away. 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 on Monday after her firm’s office closed. On Tuesday morning, she and her husband took their 10-year-old son by car to Atlanta to seek refuge with friends after it became 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.
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.
(Updates with comment from governor, MetLife and new information about storm’s approach starting in fourth paragraph.)
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