Sept. 25, 2014: The Great 1848 Tampa Bay Hurricane

By Mike Clay, Chief Meteorologist
Last Updated: Thursday, September 25, 2014, 3:48 PM EDT

We didn’t know much about hurricanes back in 1848. We don’t know much about the hurricane that hit Tampa Bay on this date either. It formed somewhere out in the Gulf of Mexico but there isn’t even an estimated track.

The hurricane intensity is in doubt as well, the only wind measurements put it as a category 1 and the measured barometric pressure wasn’t much stronger.  But how much confidence do we have in these measurements in the mid 1800s?

One solid way of determining hurricane strength is to know the storm surge, which was 15 feet in what is now Downtown Tampa. That would make this a category 3 or even a 4!  As far as we do know, this was probably the strongest hurricane to hit Tampa Bay.

Imagine 15 feet of storm surge today?  In 1848,it reportedly cut Pinellas County in half. This in our nightmare scenario today. The storm surge gets so high in Tampa Bay, the water surges back through the middle of Pinellas County to get back to the Gulf.  Such an event today would be an epic disaster and change our area forever.  In 1848, there wasn’t much to damage. 

We do know a few other things about the 1848 hurricane. It made landfall right in Pinellas County at Clearwater, this would have pushed incredible amounts of water directly into Tampa Bay.  John’s pass was cut and other passes filled in. The power of the storm surge on the barrier islands would be enough to wipe them clean of buildings today.  The Egmont Key Lighthouse was destroyed, the lighthouse keeper barely survived in a small boat.

So we do know that since the mid 1800s, two major hurricanes have hit Tampa Bay directly: 1848 and 1921.  In 1848 there was a 15 foot storm surge in Downtown Tampa and in 1921 about a 10 foot surge.  The area is far overdue for another major hurricane but this time with over a million people in the path, many living in areas we know went underwater in the past.

Not all future hurricane seasons will be as quiet as the last several, history will repeat.