Jim McKay tells the story of his experience with Hurricane Donna – September, 1960
By Joseph Giannone
Hurricanes are terrifying because when one strikes, and the damage finally seen, reality sets in. These storms are a disastrous force of Mother Nature. There have been countless generations of Floridians who have endured the anger of hurricanes. Many hurricanes have passed over our state, but none of them stands out for Jim McKay like Hurricane Donna.
On September 10th, 1960, Donna hit Naples, Florida, and the aftermath of that storm caused massive damage to our area. The weather event cost Collier County close to $25 million in repairs from the damage. The devastation of this storm brought nationwide attention to Naples and thus, may have created the interest which ultimately led to its future success.
Mr. Jim McKay, a person who has endured countless hurricanes in Southwest Florida , shed light on why that might be true. In his 66 years of residence in Naples, Mr. McKay has experienced many rapid changes. He’s watched Naples progress from a “wild west” town, with a few shops and watering holes, into a metropolis of fine dining and Fortune 500 resorts.
As Mr. McKay explains in his story, on September 10th, 1960 two things happened in Naples; Hurricane Donna crossed over its shores. The storm set in motion a series of news stories that brought Naples widespread attention. Here is his story:
September 10th, 1960
“It was September 10th 1960. On that day my family and I experienced our first major hurricane in Naples, but to understand what happened, let me give you a little background information about myself.
In 1945, I was a cadet at the Florida Military Academy in St. Petersburg, Florida. During my time at FMA, I was appointed to many jobs, but the one I remember most was my duty to guard the watch tower that overlooked our campus and St. Petersburg. The reason for that duty was to keep cadets from going to the top of the tower during storms. If they went up there, a wind gust could easily throw them off the observation deck.
After experiencing a couple of hurricanes during my time at the academy, I found later it would not prepare me for when I moved to Naples and experienced Hurricane Donna. Let’s fast forward 15 years.
It is now 1960 and I am married to my wife Lorraine and we have 2 children. My oldest child was 7 years old and the other was 4. Our house was located in the burgeoning part of Naples at that time, and was located on Frank Whiteman Blvd, between route 41 and the yet to be developed Goodlette Frank Rd. My mother owned the Motel Iris on the corner of Frank Whiteman Blvd and Route 41 where she also had a house.
During this time I was working at a furniture store as a sales manager on the corner of Seagate Dr. and Route 41. I spent my time selling furniture and making acquaintances throughout the town. Four years later that historic day in September came.
The definitive moment that has stuck with me all this time was when the weather man announced that morning there was a storm coming in from the Atlantic, and they named it Hurricane Donna. As this storm grew bigger, I knew it was time for me to prepare. I bought plywood from my local hardware store and started to board up all the windows and doors in my house.
One thing I made sure of, besides structural dependency against high winds, was to drill holes in the plywood so my family and I could look out during the storm. After I was finished preparing my house, I headed over to the furniture store to help my boss board up windows.
When I got home, my wife and kids were already packed and prepared to leave, but I knew we had no time to get in our car and drive off. So I made the decision for us to stay at the house. The phone began to ring and when I answered, my neighbor’s frantic voice emerged from the phone. “Jim! What do we do? Should we leave? Where can we go?” I told her it was too late to leave, and we should just stay home and say a prayer. I figured that would be the best thing for us all to do.
The storm began. As the day went on we could hear the wind building outside. Looking out the holes in the plywood nailed to our windows, we could see debris flying everywhere. Assuming I prepared my house in the safest way possible, I wasn’t worried. But that feeling was premature. You see, back in the days before cable was invented we had crank up antennas for our TVs, and the major mistake I made was that I forgot to crank down the antenna for the hurricane.
Little did I know at the time winds would blow upward to 180 miles per hour. My antenna quickly became a projectile that broke through the roof of my house. While the hurricane was doing its devastating work, massive amounts of rain began to pour through the hole in my roof, leaving my living room drenched and buckling the oak floor. What was worse was that the roof began to creak, which surely meant it could fall on us.
With my family in danger, I decided we should leave and go to my mother’s house, which seemed a safer option.
My vehicle was parked in the carport next to our kitchen door, so I figured we would all get in the car and there would be no danger, and no problems. Yet, with only one long block to drive, our trip was still an experience we would never forget.
As my wife and kids got into the car I asked them to please stay quiet and close their eyes, as I knew there would be trash cans, coconuts, trees, branches, and wood, flying around our car. After I pulled our vehicle out of the car port, we were literally picked up by the wind. After being spun in the air, surprisingly, Mother Nature set us down on Frank Whiteman in the direction we wanted to go.
We drove on Frank Whiteman Blvd and from there we saw some of the most brutal weather known to man. Everything that I described previously was flying around my family, and the only protection we had from these deadly projectiles was the roof of our car. This was the scariest experience I’ve ever lived through in my entire life.
Also, during the trip to my mother’s, I kept the window wipers at top speed, but it did not help a bit. I could not even see one foot ahead of me. I left my brights on, which helped some, while repeatedly honking my car horn. I hoped anyone near the car could hear our approach and we would not hit them.
After our short trek, which seemed to take forever, we arrived at my mother’s house. During the eye of the storm I returned home to check the damage and went from house to house to see if my neighbors were OK. I found Mr. and Mrs. Humm, the folks who phoned me, in their laundry room scared to death.
I brought them back to my mother’s house where our little group would be safer. After the eye of the storm passed, it was time to endure the passing of the far side, often even more severe. With the help of my family and our neighbors, we were all able to get through it.”
“When the hurricane was long gone, my family and I moved into a double unit at my mother’s motel because of the hole in our roof. Every day we would watch trucks, bulldozers and clean-up crews drive by on the highway. These large moving trucks transported food, water and supplies to help fix the damaged buildings. The bulldozers were used to clean up the fallen debris and destroyed houses.
We began to see private planes flying over head. We had no idea who those people could be, but later we would find out. On the news in other Florida cities, stations claimed Naples was wiped off the face of the earth, but of course, that was not the case.
Many saw our pristine beaches in those news reports and some saw a golden opportunity in the midst of all the destruction. Tourists started to visit Naples and in a few years, hotels started bubbling up on our beaches, restaurants, resorts and a plethora of industry opened. Naples quickly became known as heaven on earth.”
As many of you can imagine, Mr. McKay’s story is one of a heroic adventure. The storm he experienced was one of the harshest hurricanes to hit Naples, but was also the start of a new era. I was very fortunate to have Jim McKay explain his compelling story to me. Hopefully, his story will help readers understand why Naples has become “heaven on earth,” while also appreciating the “potential” in one of nature’s most deadly acts.
Excerpt from “The Next Hurricane” The Greatest Storms on Earth Series, written by Craig Woodward, published August 26th, 2010, Coastal Breeze News
For those who, due to lack of planning or preparation, are left behind, or who foolishly ignored mandatory evacuation orders, you need to know the following:
• Stories abound of those who have witnessed firsthand the power of the “Greatest Storms on Earth” and no one is ever quoted as saying they would choose to experience it again. In fact, quite the opposite – they are very sorry they stayed. Twice during Hurricane Charley, on August 13, 2004, Cliff McMahon, a resident of Port Charlotte, tried to write his name and social security number on his arm with a marker in case his body was later found and needed identification. He and his wife had barricaded themselves in their home. They used sofas and mattresses to shore up blown out windows and thought that the roof was going to go next. Fortunately, it held and they survived.
• Plan on taking care of any medical emergencies yourself as EMS is not available in a hurricane to assist you. Plan on providing your own food and utility needs such as electric, water, and sewer. Utilities may not be available for several weeks or longer. Plan on providing your own security as vandalism can and does occur after storms; plan for all of your current needs; and then plan for the unexpected. The preparation for staying is much more difficult than the preparation required for those who evacuate.
• Construction codes have improved greatly since Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida, but those codes are based upon theoretical models, not completely tested in real life. While your house may have poured CBS walls, hurricane rated windows and hurricane clips – what is the weakest point in your home rated to? 120 mph? Do you really want to be there to find out where the flaws are?
• Remember that Hurricanes are no joke. On August 17, 1969, a group of twenty-five residents refused to evacuate and decided instead to participate in a Hurricane Party. Hurricane Camille’s storm surge along the Mississippi shoreline set a record that day of 24 . feet above sea level. Of the twenty five partygoers, only two lived to see the end of the party.
Excerpts from: The Greatest Storms on Earth, Craig Woodward, Part V, Hurricane Donna:
• 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 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
TOP TEN HURRICANE TIPS:
1. Prepare a family safety plan that can be used in any disaster.
2. Put together a supply kit including water, food, prescriptions and medical needs.
3. Prepare your property! Board up windows and doors, reinforce garage doors and entryways. Tie down boats, secure patio furniture, prepare your yard. Consider the potential for flooding and what you may want to move up off the floor.
4. Prepare for your pets. If you’re leaving them at home, confine them to a safe area and leave plenty of food and water. For their safety your best bet is to take them with you, but that requires planning ahead for ‘pet friendly’ accommodations.
5. Get fuel! Whether you’re evacuating the area or running a generator, gasoline may not be readily available once the storm force winds are felt in the area.
6. Evacuate when directed (let someone know where you’re going and supply them with your route and contact numbers)
7. Do not attempt re-entry unless given the All Clear
8. Take any important personal documents, identification, and photos and take them with you in a water tight container or plastic baggie.
9. Many hurricane related injuries occur after the hurricane has left the area. When you return be careful of broken glass, tree limbs, down power lines and debris which can be hazardous.
10. Know you may be without power for a few days.
For a comprehensive hurricane preparedness manual available in a pdf format online go to http://www.weather.gov/os/hurricane/resources/ TropicalCyclones11.pdf
Collier County also has an All Hazards Preparation and Safety guide, including a Family Plan and Business Plan, which can be found at http:// www.colliergov.net/FTP/allhazards/entry.htm