It could happen here
By DAVID BALLINGRUD, Times Staff Writer
The last time a hurricane hit the Tampa Bay area, Florida was in the midst of a land boom. It was 1921, and the combined population of Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Citrus and Hernando counties was only 135,000.
If a similar storm hit today, it would lick its wet, windy chops in anticipation.
It would find that more than 2.5-million people had moved in.
It would find barrier islands dredged and filled and sprouting thousands of new homes -- big, fancy ones -- and just a few bridges to give people a chance to run for cover.
It would find a feast of vulnerable mobile homes, 50,000 or so in Pinellas County, another 40,000 in Hillsborough and tens of thousands more in other counties.
The 1921 hurricane was a bad jolt for a growing and optimistic Tampa Bay area. People feared that any bad news might slow growth, discourage investment.
As things turned out, there was little to worry about. Damage caused by the storm was relatively light, the death toll was small, and fears subsided quickly. The population tide continued to rise.
Numerous hurricanes have blown past the bay area since then, many causing severe damage from heavy winds, rain and flooding. That has fooled many people into thinking they have lived through a hurricane here. But none of those storms were anything like the 1921 hurricane.
The same Category 3 storm today would cause more than $13-billion in damage in Pinellas County alone, according to estimates made by David Bilodeau, the county's emergency management director.
A Hurricane Andrew-scale storm in the Tampa Bay area today, Bilodeau said, would cause staggering damage. In Pinellas alone, he estimated, more than a half-million people would be ordered to evacuate, and damage would climb toward $30-billion dollars.
"A lot of people in this area can blow off the lessons of Hurricane Andrew 10 years ago, thinking that storms that come from over the Atlantic are a lot more powerful," Bilodeau said. "But similar things have happened to us. We have a history with big storms here, too."
A storm the size of the 1921 unnamed hurricane would force the evacuation of 430,000 Pinellas residents and damage almost a half-million dwelling units, Bilodeau said. "Those are conservative numbers," he said. "You could perhaps double the damage estimates if you considered the contents of the housing."
Damage to the county's 51,000 boats would add perhaps $600-million to the total.
Larry Gispert, Bilodeau's counterpart in Hillsborough, would not assign a dollar value to the anticipated damage there but agreed it would be huge, especially in the low-lying Interbay Peninsula of South Tampa, where some of the most expensive homes in the Tampa Bay area have been built.
Other parts of Hillsborough are low, too, including Town 'N Country, historic Ybor City, the area around Tampa International Airport and the Ruskin-Apollo Beach area.
Of Hillsborough's 326,309 homes, condominiums and businesses, almost two-thirds would be either destroyed or suffer major damage, he said. Only 22 percent would escape damage altogether.
"The big caveat here is that it's all just an estimate," Gispert said, "but that's what we would expect a major storm with that kind of storm surge to do."
The October 1921 hurricane formed in the western Caribbean, a half-century before the National Weather Service began a formal naming process.
It hit just north of Tampa Bay with winds of more than 100 mph, although there is speculation that it weakened just before landfall. As it moved inland on a northeast heading, its counter-clockwise winds pushed a 10- to 12-foot wall of water into Tampa Bay.
It flooded Pass-a-Grille, destroyed the wooden Casino in Gulfport and damaged the Municipal Pier in St. Petersburg. It carved Caladesi Island from Honeymoon Island, and badly damaged what was then a thriving citrus crop in Pinellas and throughout the state's midsection.
In Tampa, water submerged Bayshore Boulevard, flooding many of the the city's finest homes, washing away sea walls, downing telephone and power lines and rising above the gas lamps that lined the street. A pavilion and bath house at Ballast Point were destroyed, and the Tampa Yacht and Country Club was severely damaged.
The storm passed between St. Leo and Brooksville, then continued across the state and into the Atlantic near New Smyrna Beach. It caused at least six deaths and $1-million to $10-million in damage, 10 times that in today's dollars.
But it didn't do what people most feared it would do.
Florida's open arms
On Oct. 24, 1921, St. Petersburg and Tampa were full of themselves.
Boom fever was spreading.
The country was flooded with money at the end of World War I, and a lot of it was headed for the Sunshine State.
Real estate was hot, hotter, hottest.
In his book St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream, 1888-1950, historian Raymond Arsenault quotes a St. Petersburg Times editorial that pretty well summed up the enthusiasm of the day: "The man who bets against her (St. Petersburg's) progress is taking his chances against the powers of the greatest single force in the universe -- the mighty sun, beacon fire of progress, life and light of the world."
The city's business leaders worried that the storm would somehow tarnish this buffed-up image. But it didn't happen.
"Nothing, it seems, could stop the boom," Arsenault wrote. If anything, the storm seemed to make the image shine even brighter.
"In the weeks following the storm, the city was swamped with curiosity seekers," he wrote, "most of whom went away convinced that the city had emerged from the hurricane almost unscathed."
City officials encouraged this thinking by making hurried repairs to the Pass-a-Grille Bridge and the Municipal Pier. "The weather was beautiful, and the sale of lots was brisker than ever now that St. Petersburg had demonstrated that it was impregnable to the forces of wind and water."
Tampa residents, too, hurried to clear the streets and boasted that street cars were back in service within a day of the storm's passage.
What became a hurricane was first spotted on Oct. 20 as a tropical disturbance in the southwestern Caribbean. The first advisory was issued at 10 a.m. the next day, saying the disturbance's movement was expected to be northward.
The storm moved north-northwest, however, and was a full-blown hurricane by the time it entered the Yucatan Channel on the 24th. Low barometer readings indicated it was a very strong storm.
The major headlines in Tampa Bay area newspapers tell a somewhat inconsistent story, illustrating how much better storm forecasting has become.
Monday, Oct. 24:
Predict Gale This Section
Weather Bureau Forecasters Say Storm Will Come In 24 Hours
Tuesday, Oct. 25:
This headline did not reflect the content of the story, however, which suggested the storm had brushed by Key West into the gulf and had turned toward the Tampa Bay area
Wednesday, Oct. 26:
The first real alarm is reflected in a morning "Extra" in the St. Petersburg Times.
Tropical Storm Sweeps City
Rumor Pass-A-Grille Wiped Out
A second Extra, also published Wednesday, was more measured:
No Lives Lost at Pass-A-Grille
Tropical Storm Sweeps City
In a smaller headline, the Times also chides, perhaps a bit self-consciously, "other publications" for "wild reports" that 90 persons had perished.
Thursday, Oct. 27:
Loss Through Storm Severe, announced the Tampa Morning Tribune. Two Million Loss in Tampa, the newspaper said, but added, Citizens Busy Righting Things After Big Blow.
In St. Petersburg, the Times took a positive tack, too.
Solid Improvements To Be Result Of Hurricane
City Optimistic After The Blow
Deplore False Reports Sent Out To World
Over the next few days, residents made repairs, calculated losses and told stories of good fortune and bad, heroism and tragedy.
From the Tribune: "After clinging all night to a palm tree on the exposed promontory at Rocky Point, J.D. Wilder, aged 70 years, early yesterday saw his wife, aged eighty-five years, swept from his grasp, to her death in the waves. The two had clung to the tree through the long night hours . . . at last the strain was more than the aged man could bear."
Also from the Tribune: "With his 2-year-old baby on his back, Frank James, resident of the Palm River District, swam ashore Tuesday afternoon in the worst part of the storm from his house, a distance estimated at least half a mile."
In the Times: A.R. Dunlap, a veteran Florida newsman and author of a column called The Rambler, told of an unwary citizen in St. Petersburg, who looked up during the storm to see a piece of corrugated sheet metal flapping toward him about neck level like a scythe.
"Through some freak of air current," Dunlap reported, "the wind gave the sheet iron just enough lift to clear his head as it got to him. Knocked off his hat, but could just as easily have taken off his head."
Fruit shippers -- the bay area had a thriving citrus industry then -- hurried to save what they could of their crops, now scattered all over the ground.
"Wagons, automobiles and even wheelbarrows were pressed into service bringing fruit into the packing houses," the Times reported. "Every available fruit car on the railway . . . has been placed at the disposal of the growers, and there is not an idle man in town today."
Not many idle boys, either, as it turned out.
"While schools resumed at 9 o'clock this morning (Friday, Oct. 28), there were very few boys in attendance. Most of these were at work in the groves . . ."
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