TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Wednesday marks the 102nd anniversary of the Tampa Bay area’s deadliest and most destructive hurricane – the 1921 Tarpon Springs hurricane.
As the name suggests, the storm made landfall in Tarpon Springs as a major hurricane. It was the last major storm to directly impact Tampa Bay.
According to the National Weather Service (NWS), winds were estimated at Category 3 strength during landfall – well over 100 mph – according to data from nearby ships. It weakened slightly from its peak of 140 mph in the days leading up to landfall.
Back then, the instruments used for key measurements like wind speed and air pressure were not widely available, and forecasters had to supplement the sparse data with climatological trends of previous hurricanes. Generally speaking, storms moving over the Gulf of Mexico tended to pass well north of Tampa, according to the NWS, so that was what forecasters predicted.
“It was unfortunately ‘the perfect storm’ for the Tampa Bay area because we were on the dirty side of it,” WFLA meteorologist Rebecca Barry said.
A huge area of the Florida Gulf coast – from Pasco County down into southwest Florida – was hit by up to 11 feet of storm surge. The impacts were severe, with the NWS reporting that “a significant amount of the structures” along the shore were destroyed.
Those impacts were felt beyond the Pinellas County coast. The downtown Tampa, Bayshore Boulevard and Ybor City areas were inundated.
There were reports of waves breaking in Ybor City, according to NWS.
“It drove all of the storm surge into the bay,” Barry said. “And as we know, bays can funnel the storm surge to even higher levels.”
The resulting surge destroyed most of the seawall and sent water spilling over onto Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa.
Water found its way into homes and businesses along the bay, from Hyde Park to Downtown Tampa. The surge pushed debris inland and left it behind as it receded.
Beyond the shoreline, the storm also toppled large trees and knocked out power.
Infrastructure was immensely impacted, with coastal roads and trolley tracks becoming impassible after the storm. It resulted in millions of dollars in damage.
Eight deaths were attributed to the Tarpon Springs hurricane. Most were due to drowning along the coast, while the rest were from fallen debris like live wires, according to NWS.
The storm also dealt a huge blow to local agriculture, especially the citrus industry. Entire fields were destroyed by the hurricane-force winds, while others were ruined by saltwater intrusion from the storm surge.
In the century that followed, Tampa Bay experienced several close calls, but the region would ultimately avoid a direct hit from a major hurricane. Various folklore and tales were created to explain the area’s good fortune when it comes to storms – such as the idea that a Native American blessing shielded the land.
In reality, the Tampa Bay area is simply more protected from hurricanes than other regions of Florida, as a WFLA-Columbia University study revealed. Positioned between two steering winds that help to guide hurricanes, a storm must “thread the needle” by veering inward at the perfect angle and at the right time to hit the region directly.
“What the Tampa Bay area has experienced over the past couple of centuries is pretty much what we should expect to see in the climate of the 1900s and early 2000s,” WFLA Chief Meteorologist and Climate Expert Jeff Berardelli wrote in an analysis of the study. “In other words, it’s not luck, this was just normal for the Tampa Bay area during the previous seven decades.”