I don’t have to remind you that it’s still hurricane season. But what you may not know is that October 25, 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most devastating storms in Gulfport’s history – the 1921 Tampa Bay Hurricane.
Gulfport’s recorded hurricane lore dates all the way back to the “Great Gale of 1848” – or, as one survivor put it, “the granddaddy of all hurricanes” – which swept in from the Gulf on September 23, 1848 as what would now be considered a Category 4 hurricane. It literally changed the face of the map, slicing through the barrier islands to create John’s Pass, demolishing Passage Key (which has since returned – and become a popular spot for nude boating!), and toppling the newly constructed lighthouse on Egmont Key. Accounts tell of the Edwards family (keepers of the unfortunate lighthouse) riding out the storm in a skiff tied to a palmetto tree, and of the total destruction of Antonio Maximo Hernandez’s profitable fish rancho at Frenchman’s Creek (now Maximo Park).
But the 1921 Hurricane was different. Though technically weaker than its legendary counterpart, the tempest that slammed into Tarpon Springs on October 25, 1921 struck a region that was far more developed, with extensive railroads and streets, grand hotels and civic buildings, many more businesses and homes, and an estimated 27,000 more people. A 10.5-foot storm surge and 120 mph winds reduced Gulfport’s famous Casino to “a broken pile of kindling.” It tore away fishing piers, crumbled seawalls and damaged the local school. Perhaps hardest hit were Gulfport’s fishermen, whose boats – and livelihoods – were swamped.
And that was just Gulfport. Damage was also extensive in St. Petersburg, where the famous city pier (then a wooden structure) was destroyed, and in Tampa, where luxurious new neighborhoods were leveled and bayside parkways washed out. (Even a raft of cedar logs destined for Ybor’s famous cigar factories was smashed open, revealing – gasp! – several demijohns of bootleg rum.) Smaller towns and citrus groves throughout the Tampa Bay region also felt the impact, with contemporary estimates claiming that half the citrus crop was destroyed. One local observer lamented that in the groves lining the way between St. Pete and Gulfport, “every tree was stripped.”
“People who have lived here all their lives will say, ‘I’ve lived through so many hurricanes!’” says Mary Burrell, who leads community outreach at Pinellas County Emergency Management. “But we haven’t gotten a direct hit since 1921.”
Paradoxically, some historians have noted that newspaper accounts began to shift in the days after the storm, from a despairing tenor – like the St. Petersburg Times October 27 declaration of ”Worst Hurricane in City’s History” – to an oddly affirmative note, as in the Tampa Morning Tribune’s assessment that “there will not be another storm of such severity during the life of anyone now living” (October 28). Indeed, Frank Pulver, owner of St. Pete’s Detroit Hotel, opined in the Times on November 1 that “any talk about the storm news keeping anybody away from St. Petersburg is tommyrot!”
This emphasis on the region’s swift recovery, some argue, was meant to encourage the steady stream of paradise-seekers who were moving to Florida during the state’s great land boom. And indeed, in the years that followed, the county’s population would grow by 250%, even as local real estate developers such as Walter Fuller and Jack Taylor created opulent establishments like the Jungle Prada Hotel (now Admiral Farragut Academy), The Roylat Hotel (now Stetson University College of Law) and the Pasadena Yacht & Country Club. But the climate eventually had its say: devastating hurricanes that struck Miami and South Florida in 1926 and 1928, together with the financial disaster of October 1929, effectively slowed the Florida frenzy – at least for a while.
If Tampa Bay boosters were a little too sanguine in their estimation of hurricane risk, they certainly are not alone. Popular myth insists that Tampa Bay is “protected” from hurricanes. By what? Take your pick: a Tocobaga “blessing,” a massive deposit of iron ore in the bay, or even regional geography.
“People have some pretty ‘scientific’ explanations about how Tampa Bay is formed, and why that protects us,” says Burrell. “That’s a natural reaction. People don’t want to face the possibility that something bad can happen.”
And while it is true that Tampa Bay has experienced a large number of “near misses” – from Hurricane Easy in 1950 to Hurricane Irma in 2017 – hurricanes can pack a serious punch even without a direct hit. (2020’s Hurricane Eta was no exception, with an estimated $1.5 billion dollars in damage, mostly in Florida.) With the warming Gulf creating fertile ground for larger and more intense storms, and our population still rising at a brisk rate, Tampa Bay is classified as one of the United States’ most vulnerable locations for a catastrophic hurricane.
It’s important that communities consider their hurricane history, says Burrell, with an eye toward preparing for the future. “The question is: What would that look like if that was to happen today?”
The Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council has created a truly horrifying scenario called Project Phoenix 2.0 to imagine just what that would look like. In the scenario, a Category 5 storm makes landfall around Indian Rocks – just 20 miles south of the 1921 hurricane’s path.
Burrell advises locals to follow Emergency Management’s guidance: know your risk, make a plan, stay informed and get involved. And, of course, “just evacuate when you’re told. Bottom line.” This centennial may not be one we want to celebrate, but perhaps it is one we can learn from.