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Hurricane 2021: Bay News 9′s Mike Clay recalls the 1921 Tampa Bay Hurricane

2021 is the 100th anniversary of the last hurricane to make landfall in the region: The 1921 Tampa Bay Hurricane.
The devastation left by the 1921 Tampa Bay hurricane aka the 1921 Tarpon Springs hurricane after it made landfall in north Pinellas County on Oct. 25, 1921. This photo is from a University of South Florida collections of photos documenting the destruction.
The devastation left by the 1921 Tampa Bay hurricane aka the 1921 Tarpon Springs hurricane after it made landfall in north Pinellas County on Oct. 25, 1921. This photo is from a University of South Florida collections of photos documenting the destruction. [ University of South Florida ]
Published May 26
Updated May 27

It has been almost 100 years since the last major hurricane hit the Tampa Bay area.

The 1921 Tampa Bay hurricane — also know as the 1921 Tarpon Springs hurricane, named for where it made landfall — was a classic late October storm that formed in the warm waters of the western Caribbean and swiftly moved toward the Gulf Coast of Florida.

Making landfall with no warning as a Category 3, the 1921 hurricane was a worst-case scenario for Tampa Bay, pushing a huge storm surge into the bay.

Spectrum Bay News 9 chief meteorologist Mike Clay.
Spectrum Bay News 9 chief meteorologist Mike Clay. [ Spectrum Bay News 9 ]

The surge was 10.5 feet in downtown Tampa and 8 feet in downtown St. Petersburg, doing massive damage. The barrier islands went underwater and new passes were cut in the narrow islands.

Remember, the population was only 200,000 in 1921 and communication was primitive. Miraculously, there were only six fatalities reported in our area.

What does having a 100-year gap between major hurricanes tell us? First, it tells us that we can get hit by a major hurricane. But it doesn’t happen often. The odds are low but the consequences are high.

It also tells us the extreme risk to life and property we have to be aware of from storm surge. Any hurricane (or strong tropical storm) moving in north of the mouth of the bay will push water into our coast and into shallow Tampa Bay.

Areas you never imagined could flood will be covered by salt water. Water is the most dangerous part of a hurricane, not the wind.

The Oct. 27, 1921 front page of the St. Petersburg Times, now called the Tampa Bay Times, just two days after the 1921 Tampa Bay hurricane made landfall in Tarpon Springs.
The Oct. 27, 1921 front page of the St. Petersburg Times, now called the Tampa Bay Times, just two days after the 1921 Tampa Bay hurricane made landfall in Tarpon Springs. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

Although tropical systems can happen at any time during the six-month hurricane season, historically the most likely time for us is late in the season. The “Cape Verde” storms in August and September, which can wreak havoc on places like South Florida, Texas or North Carolina, tend to miss us to the east or west.

But late in the season, tropical systems can form in the western Caribbean and move toward the Florida coast. The most recent example was Hurricane Michael, a Category 5, that hit the Panhandle in October 2018.

So on this 100-year anniversary, let’s re-examine our risk from storm surge.

Know your evacuation zone, know your evacuation route and understand what a surge could do in your neighborhood. We are lucky, too, that there are many places in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties that are non-evacuation zones, meaning they are high enough that a surge would not reach them. Some are close to the water.

Understand the old saying “run from the water and hide from the wind.”

Mike Clay is chief meteorologist at Spectrum Bay News 9.

This road, now known as Gulf Boulevard in Indian Rocks Beach, was partially washed away during the 1921 Tampa Bay Hurricane that struck in October of that year.
This road, now known as Gulf Boulevard in Indian Rocks Beach, was partially washed away during the 1921 Tampa Bay Hurricane that struck in October of that year. [ HANDOUT | Heritage Village Archives ]

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2021 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide

IT’S STORM SEASON: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane

THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE: Seven hurricane myths that need to go away

BACK-UP YOUR DATA: Protect your data, documents and photos

BUILD YOUR HURRICANE KIT: Gear up — and mask up — before the storm hits

PROTECT YOUR PETS: Here’s how to keep your pets as safe as you

NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter