Tampa's Last Major Hurricane Hit 100 Years Ago Today

The National Weather Service page on the 1921 hurricane

Listen to an interview with Daniel Noah

RUSKIN -- 100 years ago today is the last time a major hurricane made a direct landfall on the Tampa Bay area.

The so-called "Tarpon Springs Hurricane" brought 11 foot storm surges along the Bay and beaches. At least eight people died. With modern measurements, it's calculated as a Category 3 with top winds of 115 miles per hour.

Daniel Noah is the warning coordinator meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Ruskin. He says forecasting was very different then. Satellites, radar and hurricane hunter planes didn't exist. Noah says the local office of what was then called the "U.S. Weather Bureau" received telegraph reports, radio reports from ships, and information from Cuba's weather service on the progress of the storm. " (The service) did have warnings out from Apalachicola all the way down the West Coast of Florida, because (they) just didn't know where it was going to go."

An approaching cold front made the storm fishhook to the right, and it made landfall near Tarpon Springs." That's the worst case scenario, as counterclockwise circulation pushes water into Tampa Bay.

Storm Surge was reported from Tarpon Springs to Captiva. All barrier islands had damage. 10 to 11 feet of surge covered Bayshore Boulevard, and water reached as far inland as parts of Ybor City.

The pass just south of Honeymoon Island was created by the 1921 storm. Before, Honeymoon and Caladesi Islands were joined together as Hog Island.

Tampa Bay is one of the most vulnerable areas in the nation to storm surge, The land is flat and the land underwater is shallow.

Noah says late-season storms are more dangerous for the West Coast than classic mid-season storms that march across the Atlantic in August and September.

"Especially on the west coast, our biggest storms will make landfall on the coast and those are our October storms. Any storm that makes it into the Gulf can fishhook and land right on our coast."

The Bay area had only about 200,000 residents in 1921 and rebuilt quickly. With a population of three million now, Noah says rebuilding would take longer.

"A major hurricane into Tampa Bay... it's going to take us a decade to get back to normal."

But Noah says the ability of homes to withstand a hurricane has also improved over the years. Building codes got stronger in 1992, 2002 and 2012.

The National Weather Service has created a tribute site for the 1921 storm, with photos, news accounts and maps from the time, as well as a radar simulation of the storm using modern software.

Photo: NWS (simulated radar of the 1921 hurricane)

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