The “Greatest Storms on Earth” – Part V
This is a continuation of a series on the history of hurricanes in our area. If you missed a part, you can find it online at coastalbreezenews.com under Tales told Twice archives.
Similar to other major hurricanes described in this series, Hurricane Donna’s impact was much more than just the physical damage it caused as it passed through Southwest Florida the storm had enormous social and economic impacts as well. While other hurricanes ended chapters in our local history, Hurricane Donna closed the book completely on the pioneer era and opened a brand new volume on modern Florida. The difference between before and after is startling: before Donna it was a Florida of Silver Springs, Cypress Gardens, and Everglades Wonder Gardens, after Donna it became a Florida of Disney and Universal; before Donna it was Old Naples and Old Marco, after Donna it was subdivision after subdivision, like Golden Gate, the Moorings and Marco Island; before Donna it was a tourist industry built on fishing with accommodations like the Marco Lodge and the Islander Motel, after Donna it was a tourist industry built on golfing and beaches with hotels like the Marco Beach Resort; before Donna it was access via a 1937 wooden swing bridge to Marco, after Donna it was access to Marco via a high span concrete, modern bridge; before Donna it was a small rural county of 15,753 headquartered in Everglades City, after Donna it became a sprawling urbanized county with Naples at its center. While the above changes were not immediate and one could clearly argue the source of each was not grounded in Hurricane Donna, for those who lived here before and after the storm, they felt that it was Donna that was a defining moment in their lives, altering not only their own history but the history of Collier County as well. No one would ever argue that life here was not the same; life was profoundly much, much different after the storm.
It is now the fiftieth anniversary of a storm that would be called “Deadly Donna.” The hurricane itself started on September 1, 1960 over the mid-Atlantic Ocean. By September 9, it skirted the northeast part of Cuba and slowed down over the warm waters of the Florida Straits as it picked up power. Shortly after 2 a.m. on September 10, the center of Donna crossed over the Keys just northeast of Marathon as a Category 4 Hurricane, with an eye that had a diameter of about 21 miles wide, and dumped rain on Miami at the rate of one inch per hour. The storm surge in the upper Keys was 8 to 12 feet over a range of sixty miles around the storm; the destruction by wind and surge was determined to be “major to almost complete.” The Overseas Highway to Key West overflowed in several places, with some of the bridges completely submerged as the water pipe bringing fresh water to the Keys broke in five places. About half of the little over 3,000 residents of the Upper Keys, remembering the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, and after getting advanced notice from the Weather Bureau that the energy released by a hurricane of this size was the same as a hydrogen bomb exploding every eight minutes, left for the mainland.
“The energy released by a hurricane of Hurricane Donna’s size is the same as a hydrogen bomb exploding every eight minutes.”Warning of the National Weather Bureau, September 1960.
Donna continued north, picking up power across the warm waters of Florida Bay with winds at 120 mph as it passed over the beaches along Cape Sable and submerged the weather station at Flamingo with twelve feet of water. The hurricane headed northwest as it tracked just off shore up the Southwest Florida coast. As Donna passed the Ten Thousand Islands, home to the largest strand of big mangrove trees in the world, it killed approximately fifty per cent of them, as well as forty per cent of the population of great white heron, leaving only about 600 alive and destroyed all the bald eagle nests. Later, the official estimate was that 10,000 herons, egrets, ibis and roseate spoonbills were killed by Hurricane Donna. The storm carried sea turtles one mile inland near Cape Sable, and oxygen depletion in the shallow waters of Florida Bay after the storm resulted in a massive fish kill.
At 9:30 a.m. on September 10, the eye passed near Everglades City, with its lethal upper right quadrant hitting the coast. All wind gauges were blown out, but official estimates put the winds at 150 mph with one gust at 175 mph. Winds of gale force hit the City for thirteen hours. After the eye passed Everglades City, the surge swept in with the peak flood occurring at 2:30 p.m. The water rose to waist high on the first floor of the old Collier County Courthouse destroying many of the County’s records and was 7-8 feet deep in the streets. Two hundred people crowded into the second floor of the Collier County Courthouse, while others sought safety on the Collier Corporation’s second floor offices. Many homes would remain under seven feet of water for up to ten hours and flooding remained for several days. Meanwhile the storm surge rushed inland and crested four miles further – beyond the Tamiami Trail. Donna left the town with half of the buildings wrecked; debris, sea life and filth were everywhere.
Continuing as a high Category Four Hurricane, Donna entered the Florida landmass again at Cape Romano and, as it passed over Dickman’s Point on the north tip of Kice Island, it destroyed Joe Dickman’s two-story house that he had built and lived in since 1929. Fortunately, he had evacuated while other pioneers of Collier County, as their ancestors had always done, attempted to ride out the hurricane in their boats tied to mangrove trees in the back bays. Across Caxambas Pass from the Dickman house, the wind gauge at the U.S. Missile Tracking Station, located where Cape Marco is now, blew out and Islanders later heard that gusts had been as high as 185 mph.
“We did not have electricity for a month or two – cooked on a gas grill. My parents shared the gas grill with the local residents so they could cook their food before it spoilt. It was neighbors helping neighbors. We had one room in our home that wasn’t damaged but the roof leaked and we had pots and pans everywhere to try to stay dry, while five of us sleep at night in that one room. The mosquitoes were everywhere and it was hot/humid during the day. To this day I am terrified of hurricanes.” Resident of Naples, age 6 when Hurricane Donna hit.
In Goodland, a town that received the full brunt of the power of the storm, the granddaughter of W.T. Collier, the first settler of Marco Island, Emma “Nanny” Hudson, one month short of her eightieth birthday, stayed in her home refusing to leave. She put her parakeet on top of the refrigerator and her dog in the sink, and climbed up on the drain board to wait it out. Her daughter Kathleen stayed with her as the water rose inside the house to the top of the table and reported that, while she was scared, her mother was not. Kathleen had good reason to be scared: the wooden house started to float and was only held in place by the front and back concrete steps. An eight-foot-plus storm surge filled several village streets in Goodland after the eye passed directly over the town, leaving three feet of water standing in the streets. One house floated free of its foundation, crossed a channel and was later found in the mangrove swamps. Storm gusts of up to 175 mph crushed house trailers like tin cans.
Meanwhile, at the north end of the Island, the water from Collier Bay was emptied and thrown onto the village of Old Marco, resulting in the destruction of many homes, along with the loss of 168 palm trees planted near the Old Marco Inn by Emma Hudson’s father, Captain Bill Collier, and depositing four feet of water and mud in the first floor of the motel next to the Old Marco Inn (the current Shops of Marco). Fortunately, the Inn itself was high enough and did not flood, but a panther entered and destroyed one of the rental cottages. Almost everyone had evacuated Old Marco, except for the Doxsee family who sought shelter in two small rooms in the motel wing of the Inn, staying to keep an eye on their charter boats moored at the Inn. They saw roofs blowing through the air and buildings being destroyed.
In Naples, as the eye approached the City, it sucked the water from the Gordon River as well as Naples Bay and the Bay went dry. A resulting tide swept into town with a tidal surge that crested at 10.2 feet above mean low water. It left three to four feet of water in most streets and destroyed the Naples fishing pier leaving it a row of twisted pilings. During the storm, Naples residents who attempted to find higher ground by wading and swimming through the flood, reported finding snakes, pigs, rabbits and rats in the current swimming alongside of them, also fighting for safer ground. Even after the storm, water was waist deep at the four corners – where U.S. 41 turns north at 5th Avenue – and cars were found damaged by the flying shell and debris. Numerous buildings were destroyed in Naples including the new Shadowlawn Elementary School; while those living in the higher ground of Pine Ridge were spared from the flooding.
Donna hit Fort Myers and then turned and headed northeast across the state, exiting Florida north of Daytona Beach with wind gusts still at 99 mph. It then followed the coastline of the eastern seaboard and hit land again in North Carolina; then plowed through the Northeast and finally exited the U.S. in Maine three days after first hitting the Florida Keys.
After the storm, the returning bewildered Collier County residents tried to find their homes but some became lost because familiar surroundings like trees, signs and buildings were gone. Many found that they had lost all of their possessions. “Hurricanitis” is how physicians in Miami would refer to the shock experience of these storm victims. Leaflets were dropped over Goodland and Marco with notices to boil all water, stay away from contamination and get immunized. Five thousand pieces of poisoned meat were distributed over South Florida by boats and helicopters in an attempt to exterminate vermin. It took well over two weeks for things to even start to seem remotely normal.
Some had good fortune after the storm: George Ellis, who operated the Royal Palm Hammock gas station, had stocked up on 8,000 gallons of gasoline. Because no one else had electricity, he was able to use his diesel generators to continue dispensing and selling fuel. While others had bad luck, the Deaconess Harriet Bedell’s cottage mission in Everglades City was destroyed, as were all of her personal belongings. She soon left the county and retired.
The physical characteristics of the landscape also changed: the southern tip of Sea Oat Island was completely cut through, creating a new island just outside of Big Marco Pass to be called Coconut Island. Later, that cut would become the primary deep water access now known as Capri Pass, while the historic Big Marco Pass, adjacent to what would be later be Hideaway Beach, would fill in.
While Donna was one of the most destructive hurricanes in history, it had a low loss of life: there were fifty deaths in the U.S., including only thirteen in Florida, resulting from good data obtained by aircraft and land-based radar tracking, and a warning system that was complied with by the public. Total damages in 1960 were determined to be $3.3 billion dollars ($22.48 billion dollars now); but understand, Hurricane Donna hit a Florida that was much less populated than today. The Florida of fifty years ago bears almost no resemblance to the Florida we know today.
Craig Woodward moved to Marco Island in 1968 and has practiced law in Collier County since 1980. Craig has led a history tour of the Island for the Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Marco program.