100 years later, Tarpon Springs Hurricane reminds Tampa Bay it can happen here

·8 min read

Year after year, hurricane season comes and goes without causing much damage in Tampa Bay.

The scientific explanation invokes factors like dominant steering currents. In discussions on social media, some people implore, “Don’t jinx it!” And there are those who wonder if we should credit a long-ago spell by the Tocobaga tribe who once inhabited Safety Harbor.

Still, a killer hurricane can hit Tampa Bay. We know this because one did, 100 years ago this month.

The Tarpon Springs Hurricane struck Oct. 25, 1921, with a storm surge that peaked at 11 feet, inundating areas along Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard. Eight people died and millions of dollars in damage was reported as the region’s citrus crop was lost and homes were destroyed.

Falling between Florida hurricanes in 1919 and 1926 that caused far more death and damage, the Tarpon Springs Hurricane doesn’t rate a mention on the “Hurricanes in History” list from the National Hurricane Center.

Local business and political leaders downplayed the storm before and after it hit, fearing it would scare people away from moving to Tampa Bay. The region was in the midst of an economic boom, fueled in part by citrus and cigars.

“They were selling Tampa to northerners as this paradise, a year-round city,” said historian Brad Massey of the Tampa Bay History Center. “Those who had influence did everything they could to protect that image.”

From 1920 to 1930, Tampa doubled in size from 52,000 to 101,000 people. With the growth of local shipping and tourism, the city solidified its standing as the region’s business center and took on the qualities of a real metropolitan area, Massey said.

But first, acknowledged or not, there was damage to recover from.

The Tarpon Springs Hurricane “was the worst storm to hit the Pinellas peninsula since the fabled gale of 1848,” historian Ray Arsenault wrote in St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream. Winds reached 100 mph and at least 7 inches of rain fell.

“All but the most foolhardy huddled indoors,” Arsenault wrote.

The rare storm submerged barrier islands on the coast and the waves cut new passes between them, said chief meteorologist Mike Clay of Spectrum Bay News 9. “It doesn’t happen often,” Clay acknowledged in a May 26 column for the Tampa Bay Times. “The odds are low but the consequences are high.”

The hurricane made landfall on a Tuesday afternoon near Tarpon Springs in northern Pinellas. It hit as a Category 3, with winds ranging from 111 mph to 129 mph, though Massey cautioned that recording instruments were less precise back then. On the 1-5 scale of severity, a Category 3 or higher is considered a major storm.

The only warnings came in a small bulletin appearing in newspapers earlier that day and those likely didn’t reach many rural areas, according to a research paper written in 2008 by University of South Florida student Nicole C. Cox. Massey called the paper an authoritative account of the hurricane and worked on it with Cox, who went on to do further research while pursuing a Ph.D. in history at the University of Florida.

The storm moved inland quickly, weakening into a Category 1 hurricane by the time it crossed into Hillsborough County. Still, it took a toll on an unsuspecting population, especially in Palmetto Beach, where homes were flattened, Massey said.

The collapse of the Bayshore Boulevard seawall sent water pouring into the homes of Tampa’s most prosperous, Cox wrote. Newspaper reports listed “sufferers” by name and itemized the damage. One report for a Mrs. J.H. Tucker noted, “house totally wrecked and floated three blocks away.”

Power plant flooding and falling wires cost Tampa Electric Co. $200,000, about $3 million in today’s dollars. The Inn at Port Tampa was destroyed. Boy Scouts were summoned to help clear the streets of branches and debris.

Damage was worse in Pinellas County. The hurricane pushed 10 feet of water into some areas, Arsenault wrote. Boats were piled on brick-covered Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. The Seminole Bridge was gone. Williams Park was “a hopelessly tangled jungle,” and there was no communication for days with the world outside.

People were poorly prepared, showing the kind of complacency that disaster preparedness officials warn about today. Only a handful in Tampa had flood insurance, Cox wrote.

It didn’t help that newspaper stories played down the storm. Alerts issued by the weather bureau in Washington, a predecessor of the National Hurricane Center, were presented with skepticism. “Yucatan’s Blow Is Headed into Gulf,” the Tampa Morning Tribune reported Oct. 24, followed by a section titled, “No Storms Here.”

On the morning of Oct. 25, hours before the storm hit, the St. Petersburg Times showed some wishful thinking in a headline at the bottom of Page 2: “City escapes big hurricane.”

In her research paper, Cox detailed the ambivalent messages the public received about the Tarpon Springs storm and placed them in the context of efforts to promote Florida. She quotes environmental historian Ted Steinberg: ”Natural disaster has a very shadowy history in Florida, rooted in years of denial for the sake of more hotels and suburban sprawl.”

The names of two Black children killed by a live electrical wire during the Tarpon Springs Hurricane were never published. Harrowing stories were relegated to the inside of newspapers, like the Rocky Point man who clung to a palm tree as his wife was washed into Tampa Bay. Right after the storm had passed, the cover of the Morning Tribune declared, “Only Few Lives Lost.”

The newspaper also chose to feature others’ woes: “California Gets a Bit of Storm Too: Tornado Swings into Sacramento.”

Wrote Cox, “The city’s desire to divert attention from the recent storm to a different type of natural disaster far away diminished the hurricane’s significance.”

Any portrayal of devastation from the Tarpon Springs Hurricane came under sharp criticism.

Peter O. Knight, an attorney and civic leader who served on the Tampa Electric Board, called the storm a “temporary setback” and complained that “some very exaggerated stories have gained space in the newspapers.” Knight worked to make sure that news of the storm didn’t scare people away: “One should recollect that this state is freer from disasters than any other in the country.”

Local boosters even mounted a successful campaign to replace any mention of the word hurricane with “gale” in national reporting about the storm, according to Cox’s research.

Initial damage estimates were near $5 million, roughly $76 million today, but St. Petersburg Mayor Noel Mitchell pushed back against the numbers: “Individual and public loss will hardly equal one-tenth what these garbled reports estimated.”

W.J. Bennett, who ran the local government weather bureau, joined others in calling the storm a fluke. He was quoted in the Tribune saying, “I have confidence such a storm will never come this way again.”

So far, he’s been right. But USF oceanography professor Robert Weisberg says that won’t always be true.

“We don’t have any statistics to actually make a meaningful prediction when another 1848 or 1921 hurricane will come,” Weisberg said. “But it’s fair to say that since it’s happened in the past, it’ll likely happen again. We won’t be lucky forever.”

Tampa Bay didn’t act in 1921 to protect itself against another big storm. Houses that were destroyed were rebuilt in the same places, including those on Bayshore Boulevard, Massey said. No extra barriers were built.

A century later, hundreds of thousands of people here live in flood zones.

“We never learn our lesson in Florida,” Massey said. “People want to live by the water, and there is money to be made by the water. It’s hard to imagine any storm would stop that from happening.”

If another killer storm were to strike, October is a likely time for it — the home stretch of an Atlantic storm season that runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. This is when prevailing winds move south as cold fronts approach and systems that otherwise would move toward New Orleans or Texas are pushed east, closer to Tampa Bay.

During the busy 2020 hurricane season, Tampa Bay saw no impact from 30 named storms — until Nov. 10, when Tropical Storm Eta made landfall just north of the region. Eta followed a path similar to the Tarpon Springs Hurricane, starting in the southern Caribbean Sea and moving near Central America before taking a northern turn to hit Cuba and the Yucatan Peninsula. It then moved up the Gulf Coast to Tampa Bay.

On the night it passed by the region to the west, Pinellas County sheriff’s deputies drove out in high-water vehicles to rescue 33 people. Flooding inundated areas around South Tampa and Tampa General Hospital. Parts of Bayshore Boulevard and the Tampa Riverwalk were underwater.

To Weisberg, Eta showed how little the region has learned in 100 years.

“Tampa Bay isn’t ready for a major storm,” he said. “We have major infrastructure in harm’s way, our recent developments in the past two decades do not take storms into account. I fear the day it happens again.”

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