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A century of calm: Tampa continues avoiding major hurricanes

Oct. 25, 1921 marks 100 years without major a hurricane
Tampa Daily Times Oct. 1921
Posted at 6:16 AM, Oct 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-04 17:54:51-04

TAMPA, Fla. — Tuesday, October 25, 1921, was the last time Tampa Bay got hit by a major hurricane. A hundred years of good luck? Or is there a supernatural force protecting us?

Tampa Bay was beginning a land boom, and the roaring twenties were in full swing. Only a couple hundred-thousand people lived in the area. Newspaper reports at the time warned of a hurricane churning in the Gulf of Mexico, but no one knew where or when it would hit.

The primitive way of tracking storms in the 1920s would prove deadly for some. The day it roared ashore, the morning edition of the St. Petersburg Times had the headline "City Escapes Big Hurricane." The article went on to say, "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."

Hours later, Tampa was under 11 feet of water.

To put it into perspective, according to news reports at the time, the cone of uncertainty stretched from Key West to Apalachicola in the Panhandle. The unnamed hurricane of 1921 that some now call the Tarpon Springs Hurricane was a category three hurricane packing winds over 100 miles per hour and a storm surge of 11 feet.

It made landfall near Tarpon Springs just north of Tampa Bay, killing eight.

"After this interview, I'm going to go knock on wood cause I'm superstitious," ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska told Brian LaMarre, the Meteorologist in Charge at the National Weather Service in Tampa.

"That'll be good," LaMarre said. "The signature storm for the West Coast of Florida, especially the Tampa Bay area, is the October 25, 1921 storm. So we are very fortunate we have not been hit by a major hurricane in close to a hundred years."

Tampa Bay has had some close calls with hurricanes. The area has seen a fair share of damaging winds and storm surge flooding from plenty of tropical storms. But, luckily, the area has avoided a major landfalling hurricane for nearly a hundred years. Unfortunately, where the hurricane of 1921 hit just north of Tampa Bay was a worst-case scenario.

"The wind speeds move counterclockwise around these storms if it moved and it landfall north of Tampa Bay the Southwest winds would funnel all that water into Tampa Bay it would turn Pinellas County into about two islands, and the water would get trapped there for days," LaMarre said. "Given all the development across Pinellas County, Hillsborough County, the Tampa Bay area, the devastation would be catastrophic. The 1921 storm sent a storm surge all the way into downtown Tampa into Ybor. It derailed the railroad in that area which was obviously a significant impact to travel commerce and people coming into the area."

Headlines in the days after the storm painted a horrific picture of the damage. "Tampa City of Ruins," "Bayshore Swept Clean," "Estimate Losses More than a Million Dollars," "Refugees Flee from Flood at Oldsmar," "Two Dead at St. Petersburg: Twelve are Trapped on Island," "One Drowns and another Electrocuted."

In the Tarpon Springs Leader, the newspaper rejoiced following the passing of the storm, "Sponge Boats Safe; No Greek Life Lost."

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On October 27, 1921, a report in the Tampa Daily Times predicted the 100-year streak of good luck that followed. The headline read, "Weatherman Optimistic for Future."

"No such storm likely to hit here again. Key West, Pensacola, Galveston, and Charleston have suffered worse storms than the one which visited Tampa Tuesday, declared W.J. Bennet, the local weatherman, this morning. Tampa people should not be discouraged by this hurricane, for it is not probable a similar storm will ever visit Tampa and this section again."

So far, Bennet's words hold.

1921 AREAS HIT HARD

Paluska and ABC Action News photographer Reed Moeller worked on this report for several weeks. In that time, they traveled to historical societies, museums, and areas hit the hardest by the storm. We spent hours at the John F. Germany Public Library in downtown Tampa combing through newspapers on microfilm. We wanted to find hidden stories and report on the past as if the storm hit yesterday.

The Burgert Brothers Photographic Collection at the Hillsborough County Public Library Cooperative contained the most pictures of the storm. Some photos were taken during the event. However, most showed the aftermath. Downed power lines in Ybor City, the trolley line washed away along Bayshore Boulevard, flooded homes in Hyde Park, and docks and boats washed ashore along where the current Tampa Riverwalk now runs. No one spared the storm's wrath from Tampa to Tarpon Springs to Oldsmar to the Village of Cortez.

During our research, we came across a heartbreaking story of survival, death, and devastating destruction.

In a St. Petersburg Times article printed on October 27, 1921, the headline read "Tragic Death Attends Gale."

The article describing in terrifying detail how a husband lost his wife on Rocky Point:

"Perhaps the most tragic feature of the storm was the death of Mrs. J.D. Wilder, aged 85, of Rocky Point. She and her husband, who is 75 years old, lived in a small house on the promontory, which was exposed to the full force of the hurricane. Their home was destroyed by the first heavy wind, and the aged pair saw themselves surrounded by water before they were able to escape. Climbing up the rough sides of a cabbage palmetto, they hung on all through the awful night. Early in the morning, the woman lost consciousness, and the man held her in his arms until, totally exhausted, she slipped from his grasp and was seen no more. All efforts to locate the body have been unavailing. Mr. Wilder later was rescued. At Rocky Point, the loss is appalling. Practically every residence is a Toal wreck, many dwellings being literally swept away by the force of the wind and water. The Rocky Point golf course is a mass of wreck, and during the height of the storm, the water stood six feet on the ground floor of the club building."

OLDSMAR

On the other side of the bay in Oldsmar, similar stories of survival. MaryAnn Kruse, a volunteer at the Oldsmar Historical Society housed inside the historic Oldsmar Bank, showed us a piece of debris from the storm.

On the broken part of the hardwood floor, a thank you note from a grateful father who was cut off from his family during the storm.

The faded ink had several names at the top that were illegible. But, the note was clear, "my family would be drowned. Neighbors rescued them. I was at work. Not able to get out. Wind too strong."

Storm survivor Ethel Swanson was 7-years-old when the storm hit. On Nov. 14, 1993, during Founder's Day she talked about her memories of the storm. The City of Oldsmar posting the video on YouTube.

In 1981, Swanson also talked about her life in Oldsmar for a research paper for the University of Florida.

I remember the Hurricane of 1921, it was terrible. We couldn't keep the back door closed to our house, even with a trunk pushed up against it, the wind just kept blowing the door open. We finally had to leave the house. My sister, Tempe, being the oldest, was given a suitcase with my mother's jewels in it and the suitcase got away from her as we tried to cross the street to a neighbors house. The suitcase, the jewelry, was ran down, but it got all the way up to Highway 92 before it could be retrieved, over two blocks away. Water was everywhere, the bay was all the way up to the Highway 92. It sure was a mess.

CORTEZ

In the Village of Cortez, the storm wiped out nearly every home of the small fishing village. A family was rushing to higher ground as the storm surge came in. Finally making it by boat to the Cortez Public School, now the Florida Maritime Museum.

"If you look at our original floors that I'm standing on right now, you can see where there are rusted nails and that kind of thing from floods over the years," Chasey said. "As they are in this two-story building, the water is rising even higher, and you know this was a kid's account talking about it."

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"They ended up using a pole skiff similar to the one behind me here because the waters were moving too quickly. Dad was out probably to his waist in the water pulling the boat by rope and had loaded in mom, and this two-month-old baby wrapped up in a quilt trying to protect him from the rain," Chasey said." And, that is how they came straight up the streets of Cortez to this very schoolhouse we are standing in right now."

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A picture hangs in the museum showing boats outside the brick schoolhouse. A safe haven for so many families caught off guard by the winds and surge.

"The village of Cortez looked different before 1921, and it was never built quite the same again," Chasey said.

PINELLAS EMERGENCY OPERATIONS CENTER

Tracking storms in 1921 was primitive. There were several reports that Key West was destroyed. Those turned out to be false. With satellites, cell phones, and advanced technology, we can track storms days, even weeks in advance. We got a tour of the Pinellas County Emergency Operations Center.

"So there could be some scenarios where we do see, at least during the times of the highest storm surge, that there is a separation between the two areas of the county," Director of the Pinellas County EOC Cathie Perkins said.

A storm like the 1921 hurricane would turn Pinellas County from a peninsula into two separate islands.

"We have plans in place to be able to get out and do that damage assessment right away to do that debris clearance," Perkins said. "We've got the high areas in our country we'd be moving people and our assets and staging things in advance. What's interesting is so some of the flooding that we had for tropical storm Eta was very similar to some of the future projections for sea-level rise."

Storm surge maps are constantly updated. And, taking into account climate change, areas that wouldn't flood before could now be under several feet of water.

PORT TAMPA BAY IMPACTS

The storm surge pushed a wall of water inland, with waves from the bay almost breaking in the streets of Ybor City. The area hit the hardest is where the Sparkman Channel and Ybor Channel meet, next to Port Tampa Bay.

"How devastating would an impact from a hurricane similar to the 1921 storm be in today's time?" Paluska asked Dr. Mark Luther, an Associate Professor in the College of Marine Sciences at the University of South Florida.

"It would be catastrophic. Everything underwater, massive flooding," Dr. Luther said. "The Port of Tampa would have lots of water in it. The petroleum facilities would be out of business for days at a time. Half of all the refined petroleum gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel for the state of Florida comes under the Sunshine Skyway bridge. About 40% of it goes into the facilities at Port Tampa Bay."

The central wastewater treatment plant, Howard Curren Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, is in the middle of Port Tampa Bay. Dr. Luther said there are also chemicals for the phosphate industry and refined ammonium stored at the port. The main ingredients for fertilizer.

"If there was a catastrophe, with that flooding of 10 to 12 feet, what would the environmental impact be with all those chemicals? Is there a plan in place for those?" Paluska asked.

"There is. All the petroleum and liquid chemical tanks have big berms around them that, in theory, would stop any petroleum that might leak out escaping the property. They also make sure the petroleum tanks themselves are at least halfway full. One of the problems is that gasoline and diesel fuel are lighter than water, so if the tanks are not completely full, it could float off its foundation. It's certainly possible some of the pipelines could be damaged."

With climate change and sea-level rise, Dr. Luther says a storm similar to the 1921 hurricane would be even worse.

"The surge would likely be higher. Some estimates are as much as 15 feet of storm surge. If there is an extra high tide, 18-20 feet higher than normal tidal level. I keep my fingers crossed all hurricane season," Dr. Luther said.

Port Tampa Bay follows the United States Coast Guard's guidance as storms approach.

"Port Tampa Bay was also the first U.S. seaport to be named 'Storm Ready' by the National Weather Service when we received the designation. With determination, innovation, and ingenuity, Port Tampa Bay is rising to the challenge of a changing climate," Lisa Wolf-Chason, the Director of Communications for Port Tampa Bay, said. "On the Port Resiliency Index, developed by the Gulf of Mexico Alliance, the Port scored 95%."

THE GREAT GALE OF 1848

Over the past 173 years, Tampa Bay has only been hit by two major hurricanes. However, the Great Gale of 1848 was far worse.

According to Tampa Historical, an interactive web exhibit created and maintained by students and faculty at the University of South Florida; the storm was dubbed the "Granddaddy" of all hurricanes:

"The 1848 hurricane took place from September 23 to 25th, 1848, and caused damage to east coast areas around September 26. It reshaped the coastline in many areas and also destroyed the few human habitations and works in the Tampa Bay Region. Only five houses remained standing, and all the rest were damaged in Tampa. The storm wiped out citrus crops and destroyed the main houses in the plantation at St. Helena. Pinellas Country was largely inundated with floods, and the strong winds felled almost all trees along Indian Rocks Road of Largo.

The storm occurred prior to the keeping of meteorological records, but the storm surge is considered to be consistent with a hurricane of Category 4 strength. A survivor recalled the storm as a "granddaddy" of hurricanes.

The hurricane made landfall in Clearwater and exited the peninsula at Cape Canaveral. After this, it continued to churn in the Atlantic Ocean before making landfall again in the Grand Banks area of Newfoundland. Winds of 72 miles per hour were recorded at Fort Brooke, and the storm produced the highest storm tides ever recorded in Tampa Bay as the water rose and fell 15 feet in 6 to 8 hours."

Fort Brooke was a small military outpost located in the heart of where modern-day downtown Tampa now sits. Reports said that once the storm passed, soldiers celebrated in the streets drinking whiskey, grateful that no lives were lost. The Tampa Bay History Center is built on top of the fort's infirmary.

CLOSE CALLS

Over the past century, there have been several close calls. In July, Hurricane Elsa made a close pass but stayed offshore. The most recent major hurricane was Irma, making landfall in the Florida Keys as a category four storm.

In 2004, Hurricane Charley made a turn towards Punta Gorda, sparing Tampa.

Hurricane Gladys in 1968, Hurricane Donna, 1960, Hurricane Easy, 1950, and the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane. All of these hurricanes would have had devastating impacts on Tampa Bay but veered off course and missed.

SUPERNATURAL FORCES?

There are urban legends that the Sunshine Skyway protects Tampa Bay. Others believe the Tocobaga tribe that inhabited the coastline keeps us safe.

"Large burial mounds remaining from Tocobaga civilization are still present today, with the oldest one located overlooking Old Tampa Bay. However, only a few have survived the development the area has undergone in modern times. Many people think the mounds could be providing supernatural protection from hurricanes," a recent article by AccuWeather said.

But, two major hurricanes in 173 years are still two too many. So, for everyone watching this report or reading this article, whether you believe in jinxes, superstitions, curses or the supernatural, do us a favor and knock on some wood for good luck.