As residents of the Florida Keys, Jacksonville and Miami count their losses, many people in Tampa are counting their blessings.

Hurricane Irma slammed into Tampa on Sunday night bringing high winds, driving rain and fears of a huge storm surge into the city.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn took to Twitter on Sunday to issue a dramatic warning: "We are about to get punched in the face by this storm. We need to be prepared."

When people in Tampa awoke Monday morning, their city was battered but hardly broken. Power lines were down and trees were toppled. But for the most part, the damage was not nearly as bad as expected.

"I feel really grateful that we didn't get anything bad," said Maria Molenaar, who fled her home with her husband and three young children on Saturday and returned Monday to find their house undamaged.

"I was expecting it to be at least three or four feet underwater," she said. "I feel relieved. I can breathe now."

The storm did not leave the city unscathed. Many businesses remain closed, gas is in short supply and it's uncertain when power will be restored to many homes.

But people know it could have been much worse.

Tampa

Tampa was one of the luckier cities in Florida that was largely spared from Irma's wrath. (Jonathan Castell/CBC)

Robert Soriano's home sits about half a block from Hillsborough Bay in South Tampa.

When he fled for higher ground on the weekend he didn't know what he'd find when he got back.

"There is this one nightmare scenario for Tampa and that's the storm comes up the coast, pushes up the bay during high tide and then the whole peninsula here would flood. And it looked like that was a possibility," Soriano said.

Instead, Soriano returned home Monday to find his house high and dry. The only cleanup, some fallen branches littering his yard, blown off by the storm.

"My birthday is in two days and, as my brother said to me, you got an early birthday present. And that's exactly how I feel."

Experts said it was a change in the storm's tracking, taking it inland south of Tampa that saved the city from catastrophe.

Mark Hafen

Mark Hafen of South Florida University says Irma could have been much worse for Tampa, Fla. 'And we just lucked out that it was a hundred miles inland from where it could have been.' (Jonathan Castell/CBC)

"Naples and Fort Myers weren't so lucky but Tampa dodged a bullet," said Mark Hafen, a specialist in climate change and urban environmental policy at the University of South Florida's School of Public Affairs.

Hafen said rather than smashing into Tampa, Irma changed track and barrelled into the Florida coast farther south, siphoning off its strength and sparing the city the catastrophic storm surge so many feared.

"It basically hit Naples going due north. So that actually reduced some of the storm surge damage down there. And then going up inland, it just really didn't have a chance to have those really strong winds push all that water on shore."

Hafen said the worst case scenario for Tampa would be a Category 4 or 5 hurricane hitting land just north of the city and blowing water into Tampa Bay for an extended period of time.

"The flooding would be just catastrophic," he said.

Even though that scenario did not come to pass, Hafen does not think the warnings from authorities were overblown.

"I don't think it was hyped at all," he said.

"This one was pretty close to being that ultimate disaster for us. And we just lucked out that it was a hundred miles inland from where it could have been."

In the aftermath of the storm, Tampa's mayor acknowledged to an American TV interviewer his city was fortunate.

"What I thought was going to be a punch in the face was a glancing blow," Buckhorn said.