The 1921 Tampa Bay Hurricane

The Tampa Bay Hurricane of 1921.

The 1921 Tampa Bay Hurricane in late October was the sixth serious tropical storm of that season. It was the first major storm to hit the area since the “1848 Great Gale.” Because of communications by cable and radio, this was one of the first major hurricanes where early notice was given to residents. The Associated Press relayed reports from the Washington, DC weather bureau days in advance that the massive storm was on its way. The cyclone soon became a serious storm and contained hurricane force winds as it passed over Pinar Del Rio, Cuba.

At first the storm moved slowly northwestward held-back by a high pressure system over Bermuda. On October 22, though, the storm intensified into a Category 1 hurricane carrying 81 mph sustained winds (130 km/h). On October 23, it became a Category 2 hurricane and just hours after those reports on the 24th, it was declared a “Cat 3.” It was became a Category 4 hurricane (140 mph/220 km/h) the next day as it hit the coast late in the day on the 25th.

This was well before states and cities had emergency plans in place and though storm warnings were issued, no mandatory evacuation orders were given. The St. Petersburg Times reported water had flooded the ground floor of the Tampa Electric powerhouse by noon on the 25th and utility workers were forced to shut-down electricity to the entire county. In the aftermath, Tampa streets were covered with a spider web of cable-car, power and phone and telegraph wires and so Tampa Electric’s decision to shut-down was a wise one. Now it is quite common for electrical grids to be shut-down in advance of powerful storms making landfall.

Some reports claimed that the hurricane came ashore at Tarpon Springs and that damage there surpassed the devastation in the Tampa Bay area. Areas on the backside of the storm were severely flooded. The Palm Beach Post reported that Ham radio transmissions from Sanibel and Captive islands near Ft. Meyers said that the 36 hour non-stop torrential rain submerged both of those islands. Similar reports from Estero Island said that the resorts and casino there were severely damaged and parts of the island were leveled or simply washed away.

In many ways the 1921 Tampa Bay Hurricane was the impetus for modern hurricane planning and preparations that we are quite used to today. The storm left at least eight people dead – not a particularly high number compared to some other storms, but damage was calculated at over $10 million which is well over $110 million in today’s dollars. The American Red Cross immediately stocked a US Navy ship with relief supplies – including hundreds of pine caskets, but few bodies where found.

Another modern feature of the 1921 Tampa Bay Hurricane was the Public Relations effort that took place after the storm. Besides the 1921 Tampa Bay Hurricane in late October, the 1921 tropical storm season was an active one, with six tropical storms. Tampa Bay, and Florida in general, was experiencing a real estate and tourism boom and there was a stark contrast between reports during and directly after the storm – as opposed to during the clean-up and rebuilding that commenced almost immediately.

A campaign was initiated to minimize the earlier reports and to assure land investors and tourists that Tampa Bay was a “year round” destination. While there was some exaggerated and sensationalized reporting during and just after the storm, this positive publicity campaign may have made it difficult to ascertain exactly what the true impact of the 1921 Tampa Bay Hurricane really was. Historians had to sift through news reports at the time and reports that significantly downplayed the danger and damage in order to form a clear picture of exactly what happened on October 25th, 1921.