In late October of 1921, towards the end of hurricane season, although no one called it a season then, the storm made landfall. There were no televisions to issue weather
warnings. Early radio stations only reported the news of the day, after it happened. The area residents were surprised by the area’s first hurricane since the ‘Gale of 1848’.
Downtown St. Petersburg after the Hurricane of 1921. Photo courtesy of the St. Petersburg Historical Society
The storm took a typical late fall storm course. It formed in the western Caribbean, moved west of Cuba and curved toward the Florida peninsula. By October 24th, the storm had strengthened to a category 4 with winds of 140 MPH. Fortunately, when it made landfall between Clearwater Beach and Tarpon Springs, a day later, it had weakened to a category 2, with winds between 80 and 90 MPH.
A Clearwater eyewitness recalled experiencing the high winds when suddenly, the winds stopped. “I went outside and there were no winds. The sky was blue. Then, all of a
sudden, they started again, from the other direction.” The eye of the hurricane had passed over north Clearwater. The hurricane created near-tidal-like waves from the Gulf.
Because the circulation is counterclockwise, when passing over Clearwater, the winds pushed most of the tidal surge onto lower Pinellas, before it entered Tampa Bay.
“I was only three, but I had experienced my first hurricane,” recalls resident, Lloyd Phillips. “The roof blew off our house and many of our neighbors’ houses were badly damaged.
Older people said that it was the worst storm they had experienced since 1848.”
The storm caused $10 million dollars in damage, which is the equivalent of $122 million today. Agricultural alone lost over $1 million. There were 10 deaths, 7 of which were
people never found. Every bridge in the area, except for the smaller, turn-style bridge located in Indian Rocks Beach, was damaged or destroyed. The newly built Clearwater
Beach bridge, just four years old, was severely damaged.
Before the storm, Caladesi Island and Honeymoon Island were connected. The hurricane cut the island in half, creating today’s ‘Hurricane Pass’. To the south, it also created a pass at Passage Key and another at the north end of Longboat Key.
The next morning the St Petersburg Times’ headline read, “Tropical Storm Sweeps City…Pass-A-Grille Wiped Out.” The paper reported the island was flooded and up to 150
people were dead. Actually, the bridge connecting them to the mainland had been destroyed, the island up to 8 feet of water, but no one died. The newspaper later corrected their report with the headline “No Lives Lost At Pass-A-Grille.”
The damage in downtown St Petersburg was extensive. The city’s waterfront was littered with the remains of disabled boats. All four piers that had extended from the waterfront
were destroyed, including the Steamship Pier and the Recreation Pier, one of the city’s main attractions.
Back then, the county was covered with citrus groves. When the storm hit, the mature fruit was just about to be picked. It was estimated that 50 to 60% of the crop was destroyed.
With rainfall in nearby Tampa measuring 8 to 9 inches and a storm surge of 10 to 12 feet, there was massive flooding. Three people there died from drowning or flying debris.
1921 was also the beginning of a major land boom in Florida. Speculators and developers were afraid the hurricane news would spread to the north, stopping the housing momentum. Because of that, developers and business owners immediately began the cleanup. A campaign to rebuild a new ‘million dollar pier’ started quickly. The pier reopened in 1926. They did not start naming hurricanes until 1950, so residents began to refer to this hurricane by its year, 1921, which continues today.
There have been other hurricanes since 1921. We had near misses in 1944, 1946, 1950, Donna (1960), Betsy (1965), Alma (1966), Gladys (1968), Agnes (1972), Elena (1985), in 2004 with Frances and Jeanne and most recently Irma. The hurricane of 1921 though, was the last major hurricane to directly hit Pinellas County. That was 89 years ago.