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90 years after 1921 hurricane, bay area officials fear direct hit

"Tropical Storm Sweeps City," read the headline of the special "Storm Extra" edition of the St. Petersburg Times on Oct. 26, 1921. "Two Men Die." Reporters heard "rumors" about Pass-a-Grille being destroyed.

Ninety years later, we know a little more about what really happened. What swept through the Tampa Bay area was a major hurricane, the last to make a direct hit on Tampa Bay before moving across Hillsborough County and the rest of the state.

Houses and boats along the coastline were swept into a pile of rubble. Snell Isle in St. Petersburg and Ybor City in Tampa were underwater, and parts of inland Hills­borough had up to 9 feet of flooding. Piers were destroyed, hotel and church roofs were blown off, roads and bridges washed away.

Jeff Copeland, Hillsborough's interim emergency management director, has a 1921 storm surge map on his wall, showing a diagram of the Tampa Bay area after the hurricane. It shows Davis Islands barely peeking out and Carrollwood in 8 feet of water.

"It really drives the point home because this is not an evacuation map," he said. "This is the real deal."

Still, after 90 years it is hard to imagine what a Category 3 storm (111 mph to 130 mph) like the 1921 hurricane would do to the Tampa Bay area now. In 1921, the combined population of Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties was 135,000. Today, it is 2.7 million.

The death toll from the 1921 storm was small, and the area was going through a land and population boom that seemed to continue, despite the frightening destruction.

The unnamed 1921 hurricane demonstrated how vulnerable the Tampa Bay area is to storm surge. Because the population is so much higher today, the potential for death, destruction and damage is much higher.

"We know that a lot of Pinellas County was built up after World War II," said Pinellas County emergency management spokesman Tom Iovino. "All these homes built in the '50s, '60s and '70s have never seen a hurricane."

The power lines, the roads and bridges — all came well after the storm. Even most of the trees weren't here, so imagine the tree canopy being destroyed, Iovino said.

"We really haven't been tested," he said.

As the 90th anniversary of the storm approaches, Iovino and Copeland have been digging around old maps and photos and presenting them at public outreach events. They hope to remind people that, contrary to what some believe, the Tampa Bay area can and does get direct hits.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

The hurricane that devastated the Tampa Bay area in 1921 did substantial damage to houses and boats along the coastline. But officials agree that it would pale in comparison to a direct hit by a major hurricane today. “All these homes built in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s have never seen a hurricane,” said Tom Iovino of Pinellas County emergency management.

Florida State Archives collection

The hurricane that devastated the Tampa Bay area in 1921 did substantial damage to houses and boats along the coastline. But officials agree that it would pale in comparison to a direct hit by a major hurricane today. “All these homes built in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s have never seen a hurricane,” said Tom Iovino of Pinellas County emergency management.

90 years after 1921 hurricane, bay area officials fear direct hit 05/16/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 19, 2011 4:48pm]
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