Mighty Storms of Tampa Bay
While there have been many near-miss hurricanes in the Tampa Bay area – including the most recent, Hurricane Irma – there are only two so far that have really made the history books. These are the hurricanes of 1848 and 1921. We will not recount the distant 1848 hurricane here. For those interested, you may read about that in my book The Making of St. Petersburg.
But on October 25, 1921, a hurricane hit Tampa Bay by way of Tarpon Springs. Known as the Tarpon Springs Hurricane or the Tampa Bay Hurricane, this storm at one point reached Category 4 status with winds of 140 mph while out over the Gulf. Exact estimates on its wind speed when it made landfall just above Tarpon Springs vary between 100 and 115 mph, but the National Weather Service (NWS) reports it to have been a Category 3 hurricane (111-129 mph). Historical reports of the 1921 storm surge vary somewhat, depending on exactly where they were measured. Higher levels seem to have occurred on the east side of Tampa Bay, perhaps as a result of hurricane winds from the southwest and west. Measuring storm surges in 1921 was not as accurate as they are today. The NWS reports the 1921 surge at eleven feet.
All across Pinellas County, windows were broken and power and telephone lines were down. But the greatest damage occurred along the waterfront where boats were smashed and the St. Petersburg Municipal Pier was badly damaged. Other boats in the bay were sunk outright. On the Gulf side, the Pass-a-Grille and Seminole bridges were completely destroyed. There was a rumor that scores were drowned at Pass-a-Grille, which fortunately turned out to be false. Loss of life was limited to two persons in St. Petersburg, and perhaps another six in other areas of the county. Caladesi Island was formed from Honeymoon Island in the Dunedin area. The new channel between the islands was aptly called Hurricane Pass. However, Myrtle Scharrer Betz who weathered the hurricane on Caladesi Island reported in her memoirs no damage to her father’s homestead there. It is estimated that approximately $3 million in damage was done countywide (in 1921 dollars). George S. (Gidge) Gandy, Jr. – son of George S. Gandy, Sr. who built the Gandy Bridge – reported in a 1957 newspaper article that the surge accompanying the hurricane was much lower at Pass-A-Grille than at St. Petersburg. It was highest at the top of Tampa Bay in the vicinity of Oldsmar where water was reported to reach as much as 14 feet above normal.
While no lives were lost in Pass-a-Grille, the island was flooded. People rowed boats up Eighth Avenue. The boardwalk was destroyed. The casino extending into the Gulf at the foot of 23rd Avenue was demolished, and the Pass-a-Grille Hotel was severely damaged. The St. Petersburg Beach Hotel and Casino, operated by George Lizotte on Blind Pass at about 75th Avenue, was washed away. Lizotte described the scene: “Dining room tables were floating around and we had to swim to the staircase. We had been there but a short time when the south veranda was torn away and carried over the top of the casino… we silently watched huge waves demolishing the hotel whose roof was lifted bodily and blown away. Furniture piled up in heaps against front rooms, acted as battering rams against the wall, which gradually gave way, and the whole mass floated away, leaving only the foundation as a reminder that a 50-room hotel had been in operation there…” While parts of Pass-A-Grille were hard hit, little damage of note occurred farther north at Indian Rocks Beach.
The late Helen Gandy O’Brien, daughter of Gidge Gandy, remembered her father telling her how worried he was about their new home, known as Mullet Farm in what is now the Driftwood Neighborhood of St. Petersburg. The home was surrounded by water, but none entered the house. Gidge drove a nail on a post supporting the house to mark the water level. However, many other homes were flooded as far as five blocks in from Big Bayou.
Jim Franklin Sirmons was just 3 years old at the time of the 1921 hurricane. The fact that he had distinct recollections of this event speaks to the trauma he experienced. At the time of the storm, he lived just south of Booker Creek in St. Petersburg with his brother and his parents, B. F. and Pearl Sirmons. He remembered the storm as “ferocious… I could feel the house moving off its foundations. My mother barricaded us in an inner bedroom and we hid under the double bed. Trees could be heard banging on the house. There was total desolation. Our small barn was blown away. The animals were totally disoriented. There were lots of snakes about that I had never seen before. I remember how frightened and scared my mother was. God, it was frightening.” Jim continued to live and grow up in St. Petersburg. He graduated from the University of Florida in 1939, and later became vice president of CBS with responsibility first for radio, and later TV production.
Fisherman ‘Florida’ George Roberts lost everything during the 1921 hurricane: fish house, several boats, nets, and all his fishing gear and tools. After the hurricane, ‘Florida’ got a job with the government salvaging boats that had been sunk. He earned enough to rebuild his party-boat business, and even used some of the salvage to build himself a new boat named Ain’t We Got Fun, known as simply Fun for short. One of his other boats was called the Leak-a-Lot!
While many persons, especially fishermen such as ‘Florida’ Roberts, lost all they had in the 1921 hurricane, the storm was played down by local government and business interests. They were concerned that the tourist trade might be harmed. Damage was rapidly cleared. The Pass-a-Grille Bridge was quickly rebuilt, and the St. Petersburg Municipal Pier repaired and reopened under the leadership of Mayor Noel Mitchell two months after the hurricane hit.
How does the 1921 Tarpon Springs Hurricane compare with Hurricane Irma? To begin with, it is recognized that Irma was in many respects record-breaking. Prior to hitting Florida, it had sustained winds of 185mph for some 37 hours straight. It had the most Accumulated Cyclone Energy (sustained wind velocity) of any tropical Atlantic storm ever. It was a Cat 5 hurricane for 3.25 days, tied with a 1932 storm in Cuba. It was the first time two Atlantic storms attained 150 mph winds simultaneously (Irma and José). It prompted the largest evacuation in Florida history: 6.5 million people, nearly a third of the state’s population. More than 13 million Floridians lost power, the biggest outage ever in Florida history. Around 834,000 of these were in the Tampa Bay area. Some 78% of customers lost power in Pinellas County.
A major difference between the 1921 hurricane and Irma is that the Tarpon Springs hurricane approached from out over the Gulf churning up a significant surge, reported by the National Weather Service at eleven feet. Some predictions for Irma also had her coming up the West Coast, over water into Tampa Bay, which would have resulted in a similar or worse surge, perhaps in the vicinity of twelve feet. Irma’s storm surge was ten feet in the low-lying Florida Keys, and the water rose seven feet in 90 minutes in Naples. Fortunately for Tampa Bay, Irma hit a low pressure trough in the Gulf sooner than expected, which caused her to go inland at Marco Island and come up the middle of the state with the eye approximately 50 miles east of Tampa-St. Petersburg.
As Irma approached the greater Tampa Bay area at 9:30pm Sunday, September 10th, its outer winds blew 5.32 feet of water out of the bay and into the Gulf. Known as a ‘negative surge,’ this resulted in the virtual emptying of Tampa Bay. Usually, such a blowout would be followed after the eye has passed with a huge storm surge as winds swirled around, pushing the water back in to the bay. But as Irma moved north of Tampa Bay, her eye had weakened so much that her easterly winds caused no more than a two-foot surge above normal. On the other hand, Jacksonville and the St. John’s River on the opposite coast suffered a severe surge as Irma’s leading-edge counterclockwise winds there pushed water into the river and city rather than out.
Historically, Tampa Bay has experienced three of the top-five negative surges recorded in the United States (1910 at 8 feet; 1926 at 6 feet; and Irma). While the 1921 hurricane entered Tampa Bay as a Cat 3 hurricane (110-115 mph), by the time Irma brushed Tampa Bay she was a Cat 1 (74-95 mph). According to the NWS, the highest wind gusts in St. Petersburg were recorded at 74mph at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport 11:10pm Sunday, and 69mph at Albert Whitted Airport 9:10pm Sunday. The NWS documented gusts up to 92mph in the Egmont Key/Fort De Soto area. Gusts up to 88mph were documented in the Hurricane Pass area in northwest Pinellas. The highest wind gusts in Hillsborough County were recorded at northeast Gibsonton at 68mph.
These are officially documented gusts. Wind strength varies somewhat from place to place depending on surface obstacles and height at which velocity is measured. Preliminary residential property damage in Pinellas is estimated at $448 million, most of it minor or ‘affected.’
Fueling recent hurricanes like Irma is climate change. Warmer sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic and the Gulf have increased both the number and the intensity of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes since the 1980s. Storm intensity and associated rainfall rates are projected to accelerate further in the future. The waters in Tampa Bay have risen over time about an inch per decade, until the 1990s when they accelerated several inches above normal. The Tampa Bay Climate Science Advisory Panel concludes that the Tampa Bay region may experience sea-level rise somewhere between 6 inches and 2.5 feet by 2050, and between 1 and 7 feet by 2100. The Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council estimates that some 250 square miles in Pinellas, including large sections of St. Petersburg, will require “almost certain protection” from future sea-level rise.
History is instructive. Hurricanes such as the great Tarpon Springs Hurricane in 1921 – and the 1848 hurricane before it – which approached Tampa Bay and the Pinellas Peninsula from the Gulf are particularly dangerous because their winds push water resulting in huge surges. In 1921, St. Petersburg had approximately 14,000 permanent residents. Now, there are 260,000 permanent residents and 870,000 in Pinellas County as a whole. Development has also increased exponentially. Despite the fact that many structures are now built much stronger and extensive attention has been given to emergency planning, a recurrence of hurricanes similar to that of 1921 today would still bring serious disaster. A 2013 study led by World Bank economist Stephane Hallegate concluded that Tampa Bay – because of its extensive environment built near water – is one of the ten most threatened regions in the world in terms of the overall cost of potential damage from climate change and associated sea-level rise. In 2010, the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council simulated what would happen if a Cat 5 hurricane were to directly hit Tampa Bay. Their projections are vivid and not to be taken lightly. The resulting – and unnerving – video can be downloaded at www.tbrpc.org/tampabaycatplan/scenario.shtml.
On the hopeful side, St. Petersburg city government is actively mitigating its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions through reduction measures such as energy efficiency, renewable energy like solar power, and tree plantings. Stormwater and wastewater infrastructure improvements are being designed to anticipate locally projected sea-level rise. Building codes have mandated higher foundation levels for new construction (reducing flood-insurance costs), and prohibited increased residential density in high flood-prone coastal areas. Most heartening is to see neighbors helping neighbors when storms such as Irma occur. And, it is equally heartening to see neighbors taking active measures year-round to reduce their personal carbon footprint while advocating for public policies to accomplish the same.
Resources used in this article include Raymond Arsenault, St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream; John A. Bethel, History of Pinellas Point; Myrtle Scharrer Betz, Yesteryear I Lived in Paradise: The Story of Caladesi Island; Stephane Hallegate et al “Future Flood Losses in Major Coastal Cities,” Nature Climate Change (Sep 2013); Frank T. Hurley, Jr., Surf, Sand & Post Card Sunsets; Nathaniel Lash and Neil Bedi, “A Matter of Miles: How the Slightest Shift Kept Hurricane Irma from Turning Into an Even Worse Disaster,” (Sep. 20, 2017); Will Michaels, The Making of St. Petersburg, (2nd ed. 2015); Elda M. Roberts, The Stubborn Fisherman; the St. Petersburg Times (various); National Environmental Education Foundation, “Increased Hurricane Intensity,” (Sep. 12, 2017); National Weather Service, “1921 Hurricane: The Forgotten Nightmare,” (2011); Hal Needham, Marine Weather and Climate, (Sep 12, 2017); Tampa Bay Climate Advisory Panel, “Recommended Projection of Sea Level Rise in the Tampa Bay Region,” (2015); Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, “Sea Level Rise in the Tampa Bay Region,” (2006), and “Hurricane Irma Economic Impacts on Pinellas County,” (draft Oct. 11, 2017); Washington Post, “Tampa Bay is Due for a Major Hurricane. It is Not Prepared,” (July 31, 2017); and interviews with Helen Gandy O’Brien and Jim Sirmons. Will Michaels may be reached at email@example.com.