Journals of Yesteryear

Southwest Florida History Littered with Hurricanes

Author: Mark D. Smith, former County Archivist
Source: Sarasota County History Center
Photo Credit: Sarasota County History Center

Hurricanes have been a part of Sarasota life since the area's history was first recorded by the Whitaker family in 1845. In 1846, a major storm hit the Tampa Bay area and it was reported that the Manatee River was sucked out into the bay. The water level was so low that you could ride a horse across the river. In 1848 another major storm hit the Tampa Bay area and destroyed Fort Brooke. Amazingly, there was no loss of life in these storms. However, the population of the entire area was only a few hundred in the mid 1800s.

The first hurricane to do structural damage to the Sarasota area was the October 1921 storm. Sarasota in 1921 was primarily a fishing village with fish houses and piers lining the bayfront. Although the hurricane was offshore, the counterclockwise flow of winds created high tides that pounded the Sarasota, St. Petersburg and Clearwater area for 36 hours. In Sarasota the tidal surge of more than 7 feet inundated Casey, Siesta, St. Armand's, Longboat and Anna Maria Keys and sent the water from Sarasota Bay past Five Points in downtown Sarasota. The Sarasota County Times reported on October 27, 1921, that Sarasota's storm damage was less than $150,000 with the damage largely confined to the, waterfront. What the 1921 hurricane did for Sarasota was to give the local government the opportunity to transform it from a fishing village to a resort city. Before the storm, the site and the smell of the waterfront sent the tourists elsewhere. Afterwards, the city of Sarasota began to bill itself as a resort city.

Hurricanes continued to move through the Gulf of Mexico and by Sarasota throughout the 1920s and 1930s. In 1926 a hurricane severely damaged Miami, crossed the state, and entered the Gulf of Mexico near Venice, causing beach and structural damage. The 1935 hurricane billed as one of the worst storms ever formed, devastated the Florida Keys with winds of nearly 250 mph but brushed by Sarasota, leaving little damage. However, in 1944, a hurricane came up to the gulf with winds in excess of 100 mph and damaged both the Sarasota and Venice Army Air bases. It was reported that the water was swept out of Hudson Bayou during the storm and boats were sitting on the bare bottom.

In 1950 the first named storm to hit the Tampa Bay area was Hurricane Easy. Hurricane Easy hit just north of St. Petersburg on Sept. 4 and 5, which was Labor Day. Sarasota experienced 60 mph winds and high tides. Beach Road on Siesta Key was washed away and the Siesta Key bridge was underwater from wave action and high tides. St. Armand's was under 1 1/2 feet of water: Heavy rains put half the county underwater and a tremendous mosquito problem was created. The Sarasota Herald Tribune reported in September 1950 that four planes were sent over Sarasota to blanket the area with DDT to combat the, record number of mosquitoes.

After a 10-year absence, Hurricane Donna hit Florida in 1960. Donna went past Venice and Sarasota with 90 mph winds, causing flooding and wind damage. Through the 1960s and up to the present, hurricanes have passed Sarasota, some causing slight damage. The above photograph, from the Joseph Steinmetz Collection, shows storm damage from Hurricane Alma on City Island in 1966. Others like Agnes in 1972, caused beach and property damage on Longboat and Siesta Keys. As we enter any annual hurricane season, it is important to be prepared. Be sure to have an emergency evacuation plan ready and stock up on supplies. As history has shown, hurricanes are highly unpredictable and capable of severe damage.

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