Florida, with coasts along both the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, has the distinction of being the state with the most direct hits by hurricanes since official records of Atlantic storms began to be kept in 1851. At that time, they were generally numbered, not named. However, in August of that year, a storm known as “The Great Middle Florida Hurricane,” a category 3 with a maximum wind speed of 120 miles per hour, made landfall near Panama City, causing at least 23 deaths, including 5 people killed when it destroyed a lighthouse.
Earlier records of storms do exist, however, going back to 1523, “when two ships and their crews were lost along the western coastline.” Other notable, earlier hurricanes include the Great Havana Hurricane of 1846 and the Tampa Bay Hurricane of 1848. The Great Havana Hurricane struck the Florida Keys on 11 October 1846 after having devastated Cuba. This likely category 5 storm destroyed the old Key West lighthouse, the Sand Key Light, and Fort Zachary Taylor. It then turned north and hit Tampa Bay on 13 October, sucking the water out of the bay as it approached. It was reported that the Manatee River was “so low that people walked horses across it.” The 1848 hurricane made landfall in Tampa Bay, probably as a strong category 3 or category 4 cyclone on September 23-25. It created 15-foot tides and changed the coastline, creating John’s Pass in Pinellas County and New Pass in Sarasota County. All structures in Tampa, including Fort Brooke and Egmont Key Lighthouse, were destroyed or damaged.
From 1852 to 1918 no hurricanes rated higher than category 3 blew through Florida. Then, on 2 September 1919, a tropical depression formed near the Leeward Islands that tracked WNW, picking up strength as it moved across the Bahamas toward the Florida Keys. This storm, known as the 1919 Florida Keys Hurricane or the 1919 Key West Hurricane, rolled across the Keys and Dry Tortugas on September 9-10 as a category 4 equivalent, with maximum winds of 150 mph. It is ranked as the 6th-deadliest Atlantic hurricane, responsible for an estimated 600-900 fatalities.
The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 was a category 4 cyclone that originated near the Cape Verde archipelago off northwestern Africa. Weather reporting at that time was spotty, relying mainly on ships’ reports. Hurricane warnings did not go up until less than 24 hours before the storm struck on 18 September, flooding Miami Beach and part of Miami with a 10-foot storm surge. According to a historical marker in downtown Miami, it “killed more than 370, made more than 25,000 people homeless, and caused millions of dollars in damage in South Florida. It continued across the state and moved into the Gulf of Mexico near Fort Myers, making a second landfall west of Pensacola on September 20, 1926.”