Tampa was a small village when a major hurricane blew through in September 1848, pushing a massive storm surge into Tampa Bay and flooding the entire city.
The tide rose 15 feet above normal. Water covered all the islands in Tampa Bay and Tampa's Interbay Peninsula. Only the tops of trees could be seen near the flooded Hillsborough River. Most structures were swept away and huge oak trees were blown down. The massive change in topography the storm wrought rendered navigation charts almost useless.
It may have been the strongest storm ever to strike Tampa Bay.
I say may have been because it's not easy to know for sure how many hurricanes have hit the region, since most of Florida was uninhabited until the early 1800s .
After the September 1848 hurricane — big storms weren't named then — another hurricane hit a few weeks later, in October. It wasn't as big but it was strong enough to create a 10-foot storm surge in Tampa, resulting in more flooding for settlers still recovering from the first hurricane.
Some people left and never returned.
The last hurricane to hit Tampa Bay roared through in October 1921, causing widespread damage and a storm surge of 10.5 feet. The center of the storm came ashore in northern Pinellas County, near Tarpon Springs. In Tampa, water swept across DeSoto Park and over the seawall along Bayshore Boulevard. There were numerous reports of debris high in treetops the next day.
Many hurricanes have come close to Tampa Bay but have stayed far enough away to spare the area from severe damage. The Labor Day storm of 1935 struck the Florida Keys as a Category 5 (156 mph and above) but just missed Tampa Bay. Still, it caused a storm surge of 5.3 feet.
An October 1946 hurricane hit Bradenton but lost intensity as it made landfall, so damage was light.
In September 1950 Hurricane Easy moved on a slow path west of Tampa but pushed a storm surge of 6.5 feet into Tampa Bay. Water washed away roads and homes close to the waterfront along the Pinellas beaches. The storm came to a standstill west of Tarpon Springs and then intensified dramatically, with winds up to 125 mph. Easy made a small loop just off the coast before making landfall near Cedar Key. The storm then made another loop, reentered the Gulf of Mexico, and came ashore again near Homosassa Springs. In northern Citrus County, the storm dropped a record 38 inches of rain.
In September 1960, Hurricane Donna passed well east of Tampa, producing wind gusts of 120 mph in Manatee County and 150 mph in Polk County.
In October 1968, Hurricane Gladys made landfall between Bayport and Crystal River. Hurricane-force winds were reported from Pinellas to Citrus counties. A storm surge of 6 to 7 feet produced extensive damage.
In 1985, Hurricane Elena provided a perfect example of how chaotic storms can be. Elena was moving directly toward Citrus when it stopped, turned around, and headed directly for Biloxi, Miss. Still, high seas eroded Tampa Bay area beaches. Eight-foot waves caused two barges in Tampa Bay to break free from their moorings and slam into the Gandy Bridge and streets flooded in low-lying areas of Tampa, such as Davis Islands.
In recent memory the 2004 season was very busy with Hurricanes Charley, Frances, and Jeanne all moving through the area. Polk County was hit hardest in our area, with all of those storms sparing Tampa Bay from the worst weather.
It's common for our area to see a tropical storm in the early part of the season.
This is because the Gulf of Mexico is usually warm and small low pressure areas can intensify enough to produce a tropical storm. These events are not always a bad thing because they can provide our area with beneficial rains in the early part of summer. Large hurricanes are rare from June to the first part of July because water temperatures are just starting to warm up in the Atlantic.
September is the peak of the hurricane season but not for the Tampa Bay area. Our area can be hit in September but it usually comes from a weakening storm coming across the state from the east. October is actually the most dangerous month for Tampa Bay. The water temperatures are still warm enough to produce a large hurricane in the Caribbean and the wind patterns are much more conducive for a storm to move north into the Gulf and then be pushed eastward into our coastline.
Tropical activity typically drops off dramatically in November as water temperatures cool and wind patterns work against any developing storms.
There is a message in all this history: We've been lucky. Areas to the east, south, and northwest of Tampa Bay all get hit more often, yet we can't predict when the next big hurricane will strike.