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Lessons learned from the Tampa Bay hurricane of 1921

Bill DeYoung

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Devastation on the bayfront: St. Petersburg after the hurricane of Oct. 26, 1921. Florida Archives.

City Escapes Big Hurricane read a tiny Page 2 headline in the Oct. 25, 1921 edition of the St. Petersburg Times. The story underneath explained that although Cuba was reportedly hit hard, rumors that Key West had been obliterated proved to be unfounded.

“The tropical storm which was reported Monday to be moving towards St. Petersburg, failed to reach here with any force Monday night, according to the local weather bureau,” the Tuesday-morning article read.

Wrong.

The Safety Harbor Spa, October 1921. Florida Archives.

The hurricane barreled ashore at Tarpon Springs around 3 a.m. on Oct. 26, with sustained winds the historical records all say topped 110 miles per hour (making it, by today’ calculations, a strong Category 3), with an 11-foot storm surge taking out seawalls, docks and bridges as far south as Manatee and Sarasota Counties and as far east as downtown Tampa, snapping tree limbs and tossing enormous steamships high onto dry land. Train tracks were uprooted.

One hundred years and 11 months later, almost to the day, the west central coast is facing a similar threat, as Hurricane Ian will be the first major storm to make landfall in the Tampa Bay area since 1921, in the era before storms were assigned human names.

It is, of course, imperative to heed the warnings from local officials and get as far away from Ian’s rage as you can; hurricanes can be devastating to life and to property.

Advantage: Us.

The steamship “Favorite,” Tampa, Oct. 26, 1921. From the Burgert Bros. Collection/Hillsborough County Library.

Clearly, in the 1920s there was no advance warning system, no way to track the storm accurately or measure its intensity. There was no internet, no television – even radio was something new and unusual for most American households.

So nobody was prepared. No radar, no satellites. No Jim Cantore.

Let’s not forget, too, that houses, hotels, bridges, piers and pavilions were almost entirely made of wood in those days. And wind that strong will reduce just about everything in its path to kindling.

The Times’ mid-morning “Storm Extra” that Oct. 26 carried this banner headline, on the top of Page One:

TROPICAL STORM SWEEPS CITY

Underneath that was a second headline, just as large:

RUMOR PASS-A-GRILLE WIPED OUT

Like the Key West story, this thankfully turned out not to be true. Pass-a-Grille’s casino building was destroyed (as was the original Gulfport Casino), as were the beach boardwalk and a handful of boats. 

The majority of the damage was to property, and to power lines and railroad tracks, and the New Port Richey and Pasco County area’s citrus industry suffered a major blow (“It stripped the trees,” a citizen recalled decades later. “No oranges or grapefruit that year”).

Sadly, eight fatalities were recorded, and the damage was ultimately estimated at $10 million. The storm crossed over the Floridian peninsula, and met the Atlantic Ocean considerably weakened.

Although a much less severe hurricane touched down in the Tampa Bay area in 1946, damage was comparatively minor, and no deaths were reported.

One reason, experts say, it that meteorological sciences, and storm forecasting, had improved significantly, and the population had more time to prepare for the arrival of the big blow.

And that was 78 years ago. We’re learned a lot since then.

Please be safe, follow preparedness instructions, and we’ll see you on the other side of this thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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