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.

Rate This Article

Total Votes: 14 Avg Vote: 4


Thank you for your comments!

You must be logged in to leave a comment.


Sarasota County History and Preservation Organizations


Get Our Free Weekly Newsletter

sign up

Featured Journals

Yarbrough’s Tenure Saw School Growth

Thomas Wayland Yarbrough was the standard-bearer for Sarasota schools for nearly four decades. He came to Sarasota in 1907 to lead the public schools and, with the exception of three years in Mulberry, remained until his retirement in 1945.

Read More »
New Theories of the Origin of the Name Sarasota

Residents of Sarasota have long speculated about the origin of the name. A plausible sounding daughter Sara was invented for explorer Hernando de Soto, who landed in the Manatee River in 1538, complete with a tragic love story to dramatize a 1916 “Sara de Soto” pageant. The pageant became an annual week-long celebration climaxed by a circus parade, and declined when the Barnum & Bailey winter camp moved to Venice in 1960. A more recent speculation is that the name may have meant Point of Rocks or Place of the Dance, but the truth may be more interesting.

Read More »
The Payne Chapel AME Assembly Church

One of the most remarkable historical rehabilitation projects in downtown Sarasota can be found on the corner of Central Avenue and Fifth Street.

The Payne Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church was organized after the turn of the 20th century. A group of Methodists who had been attending Bethlehem Baptist Church or the AME Church on the Manatee River in Bradenton, got together and decided it was time to organize an AME church in Sarasota. Members of the congregation given credit for organizing the church include The Reverend T.H. Arnold, Leonard Reid, Jerry Allen, Richard Grice and the Reverend C. Conely.

Read More »
User ID :
Password :
Log In

Wrong user name or password!