For reasons that residents and meteorologists like to speculate about, the Tampa Bay area has been spared from a direct hit by a hurricane for the past 92 years. The last storm to make landfall in the area did so in late October 1921. The unnamed storm (hurricanes were not officially given common names until 1953) pushed a 12-foot-high storm surge into Tampa Bay, flooding Tampa neighborhoods and destroying the railroad pier in St. Petersburg.
Meteorology was still in its early stages during this era, so people did not have the luxury of cones of uncertainty and five-day forecasts. The first news that a storm was brewing in the Caribbean appeared in The Tampa Tribune on Oct. 23, two days before the hurricane struck. That early forecast did not carry the same significance as today simply because people had no idea of the size, speed or direction of the storm. To be concerned about it so far in advance would have been a waste of time — usually.
Reinforcing that point was local weather official W. J. Bennett, who explained that he did not feel the storm would pose a threat, stating that the last tropical storm to come near Tampa had done so 11 ears prior with maximum winds of 48 mph. Bennett did not point out that 10 people lost their lives in the 1910 storm.
While Bennett was offering his view of the potential storm track, rain began to fall in the Tampa Bay area. It did not stop raining for two days, and by the time the storm had passed, close to nine inches of rain inundated the area. Two-thirds of that rainfall came in less than 24 hours.
Despite the persistent rain, increasing winds, and ominous headline in the Oct. 25 Tampa Tribune, which read “Hurricane Heads in to Florida’s Coast,” the main newspaper story about the storm led with the line “May Pass Tampa By as in All Past Instances.”
Tampans were unable to see a retraction in the following day’s paper because there was no Tampa Tribune on Oct. 26. The hurricane made landfall near Tarpon Springs on the afternoon of the 25th, flooding the area with both rain and rising water. Fierce winds tore through buildings and pushed the bay waters into the southern section of downtown Tampa plus Hyde Park and Ybor City. Storm water washed out a portion of Bayshore and destroyed a section of streetcar tracks that ran parallel to the waterfront boulevard.
Eight people died in the Tampa Bay area as a result of the storm, which also caused approximately $5 million in damage (about $63 million in today’s dollars). Few people were covered by insurance, so the individuals and businesses affected had to shoulder the cost themselves. State and federal government aid was nonexistent at this time, but then as now Americans were eager to donate money to the Red Cross to help those in need. In some instances, however, that money was turned away.
Some of Tampa’s biggest businessmen and boosters were afraid that news of a devastating hurricane would turn people away from the city. So, in an effort to downplay the storm’s impact, they declined some aid money stating that it was not needed.
Much has changed since Oct. 25, 1921. Forecasts are given with increasing accuracy and confidence, and most people have some form of insurance. Other things are more difficult to change. The lack of a direct landfall in the Tampa Bay area since 1921 has given many residents a false sense of security. One need only look to last year’s late-season storm, Hurricane Sandy, and its effects on the New York area to see what could be in store.
Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He welcomes your comments and questions and can be reached via email at [email protected] or phone at (813) 228-0097.