“Once in a Lifetime” Hurricane of 1921 shows that a Category 3 storm could have devastating effects in Tampa Bay


100 years ago Tampa’s most notorious storm hit land, grabbing 120 mph winds, a storm surge of 3 meters and claiming eight lives – including children.

“There’s more than $ 2 million in damage and a lot of personal property damage in particular, there’s a lot of homes being damaged,” said Brad Massey of the Tampa Bay History Center.

Bayshore Boulevard brick pavement and sidewalk damaged by hurricane. (Courtesy of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System)

These include Bayshore Boulevard, the home of J. Brown Wallace, one of the signatories of the Palma Ceia Charter; a photo shows how the house was knocked off the foundation.

Although the storm hit land at Tarpon Springs, downtown Tampa experienced some of the highest storm surges.

“The problem is because the eye of the storm lands north of the bay, the 1921 hurricane is going to wash all the water into the bay, and that’s why we have a storm surge nearly 10 feet high that will huge flood parts of downtown and Bayshore,” said Massey.

Damage to Bungalow Hays in Edgewater Park on McKay Bay. (Courtesy of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System)

The storm came during the dawn of the Florida land boom. Massey says people invested in Tampa and officials didn’t want this to stop.

“When the storm hits, the boosters will say, ‘Oh, you know, that was bad, but it’s a one-time thing that won’t happen again,'” said Massey. “There is actually a local weatherman who says he is confident that the Tampa Bay area will never be hit by a storm like this again! ‘”

View of Palmetto Beach after Hurricane 1921. (Courtesy of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System)

In Pinellas County, many coastal homes and businesses have been flooded. The iconic St. Pete Pier was destroyed.

It took a long time to get into the Saffir Simpson Wind Scale which it would have rated as Category 3.

Safety Harbor Springs Pavilion wreck. (Courtesy of the Florida State Archives / Florida Memory)

And yes, we haven’t seen a direct hit in 100 years, but Massey says don’t get complacent.

“That doesn’t mean it won’t happen,” said Massey. “The idea that Tampa Bay won’t be hit by a storm is just not true.”

Seminole Bridge destroyed by Hurricane 1921. (Courtesy of the Florida State Archives / Florida Memory)

At that time Hillsborough County had 88,000 residents. Today 1.5 million people live.

If Tampa were hit directly by a Category 5 hurricane like Irma, a University of South Florida study once showed that MacDill Air Force Base would be covered in 13 feet of water.

Damage to Safety Harbor public schools. (Courtesy of the Florida State Archives / Florida Memory)

Computer models for Pinellas County show that a Category 2 storm would flood much of Dunedin and Redington Shores.

A Category 3 hurricane would destroy 4th Street in St. Petersburg and hit homes near the bay.

Washed County Road along the Pinellas County coast. (Courtesy of the Florida State Archives / Florida Memory)

Nowadays we have much better technology, dedicated emergency centers and evacuation zones to give warnings and plans to prepare if a storm like this ever occurs again.

But if we saw a repeat of the 1921 storm, it would likely be a multi-billion dollar catastrophe for the Tampa Bay area.

Hurricane damage to boats on the Hillsborough River. (Courtesy of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System)

Ship, Thomas B. Garland and barge washed ashore by hurricane, show damage to the quay. (Courtesy of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System)

Hurricane-damaged house in Palmetto Beach. (Courtesy of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System)

(Courtesy of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System)

Hurricane-damaged ship Thomas B. Garland was thrown onto the Tampa docks. (Courtesy of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System)

Intersection of Parker and Eagle streets looking south at hurricane flooding. (Courtesy of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System)

View of hurricane damage to trees, tram tracks and pavement on Bayshore Boulevard after the storm. (Courtesy of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System)

View of the Favorite steamship ashore after Hurricane 1921. (Courtesy of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System)

About Mike Crayton

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