It’s now extremely likely that when it makes landfall sometime Wednesday, Hurricane Ian will bring Tampa Bay some of the most dangerous storm conditions it’s seen in a century.
Forecasters and weather experts are comparing Ian to the unnamed 1921 storm that ravaged the Pinellas County coast, sending a deadly 11-foot storm surge through Tarpon Springs and spurring rumors that Pass-a-Grille had been wiped off the map.
Most people in Tampa Bay have not lived through a storm close to Ian’s size, said Jamie Rhome, acting director of the National Hurricane Center. The region did feel tropical storm-force winds during Tropical Storm Elsa last year, and hurricane-force winds during Irma in 2017, but neither of those was a direct hit.
Here’s how other notable storms impacted Tampa Bay.
Tropical Storm Eta surprised parts of the area in November 2020, pushing several feet of storm surge into waterfront neighborhoods. The storm made landfall farther north, near Cedar Key, but it passed about 45 miles off the Pinellas County coast, dumping rain on the region and bringing 70 mph wind gusts.
Irma was the last hurricane to prompt widespread evacuation and storm preparation in Tampa Bay. The storm, which lingered for days in the Gulf as a Category 5, had Tampa Bay in its crosshairs before shifting south and striking Marco Island. It caused widespread flooding and left millions without power across Florida, though the damage in Tampa Bay wasn’t as bad as it was in other communities.
Tropical Storm Barry — the 2007 version, not the ones that hit in 1983, 1989, 1995, 2001, 2013 or 2019 — actually made landfall near Tampa, but there was little significant damage, with wind gusts topping out at 40 mph. The storm brought needed rain to the area.
Three major hurricanes targeted Tampa Bay in 2004, with a few directly impacting Tampa Bay. Charley was the first and was supposed to be the worst; the region evacuated before the storm abruptly shifted south and made landfall near Punta Gorda as a Category 4. Frances and Jeanne struck Florida’s east coast, but were strong enough to cross the state and impact Hillsborough County, grazing its northeast corner with winds near 70 mph.
Tropical Storm Marco was predicted to bring several inches of rain as it swiped the Tampa Bay coast in 1990. It brought gusts of more than 60 mph and did a bit of damage in Manatee and Sarasota counties, but power outages in Tampa Bay were in the hundreds. More than a few people said Tampa Bay actually needed what little rain it brought.
Tropical Storm Keith, 1988
Striking first near Venice, Tropical Storm Keith moved up the shore with wind gusts of 80 mph, causing millions in damage just before Thanksgiving.
Over Labor Day weekend in 1985, Category 3 Hurricane Elena stalled off Tampa Bay, prompting huge surges, injuring nearly 500 and destroying more than 250 homes. More than 300,000 people evacuated Pinellas County, and the region saw an estimated $100 million in losses.
While not named, this storm brought more than a foot of water when it made landfall near Clearwater and swept across Tampa.
Hurricane Gladys, 1968
In October 1968, Gladys came ashore north of Tampa with 85 mph winds and tides 5 feet above normal. There were no deaths, but it caused $6.7 million in damage.
Hurricane Donna, 1960
After crossing the Florida Keys with winds equivalent to a Category 4, Donna boomeranged across Florida. Tampa Bay didn’t get the worst of the damage, but it still destroyed buildings in Pasco and Hillsborough counties and caused the Alafia River’s worst flooding until Hurricane Irma.
1935 Labor Day Hurricane
Called the “Labor Day Hurricane,” this 1935 storm is considered the most severe in terms of wind velocity, central pressure and storm tides. It passed over the Keys and up the west coast, entering at Cedar Key, and leaving about 409 dead.
When it slammed the Pinellas coast, it caused millions in damage, destroying citrus crops, leaving barrier islands submerged, and killing eight in Tarpon Springs. By today’s standards, it would rate as a Category 3, with sustained winds of more than 100 mph. Tampa Bay hasn’t seen a tropical storm like it since.
This is considered one of the worst storms on record to hit the region. Tides in Tampa Bay surged 15 feet, covering islands and all but the tops of trees along the Hillsborough River. Fort Brooke was destroyed. In a letter, one pioneer later wrote: “If you could see, you might well say Tampa is no more.”
Times staff writers Veronica Gonzalez and Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this story, which used information from Times archives.
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