Good day to all! Although we got an early start again this year with Andrea, hurricane season didn’t actually begin until June 1, so since it is now upon us, this and the next are my annual hurricane columns.
Did you know that since 1830, Florida has experienced more than 200 tropical storms with over 100 classified as hurricanes? However, until 1953, when the United States began using female names, they were generally unnamed.
It seems an “average” season is 12 named storms, six of which become hurricanes, with two of them major, i.e. winds 111 miles per hour or higher. The 2019 predictions I’ve seen, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s, Colorado State University’s, who’d have thought a university in Colorado would be predicting tropical storms, and Accuweather’s, indicate near to slightly above average activity is expected. The approximate medians of all three predictions are 12-13 named storms, 5-6 hurricanes, with 2-3 of them major.
The earliest documented hurricane directly affecting this area occurred in September 1848, with landfall at Tampa. No deaths were reported, but Tampa lay in ruins and flooding occurred south to Charlotte Harbor. That same storm severally damaged Thomas P. Kennedy’s store on the harbor’s southeastern shore, eventually leading to the area’s “burnt store” designation.
The October 1876 hurricane’s effects were more severe and felt for several days. A resident of the area that would become Solana, just up the river from present day Punta Gorda, observing that all water was blown out of the harbor after days of high winds and heavy rain, commented that when the blow was over, there’d be plenty of mullet. This is also the storm that led three hunters with 13 alligators bagged at the “point” to seek shelter with the Lockhart’s, first permanent settlers of what became Punta Gorda. An historical marker near the large banyan tree on today’s West Retta Esplanade notes the approximate location of their cabin. The banyan tree was planted much later by Marian McAdow.
Around 1903, a 60-foot tower was constructed on the bayfront at the foot of Sullivan Street to display storm signals. Still in use when I was a youngster, I remember a green flag flying during calm weather, a single red triangular flag indicating small craft warnings, two triangular red flags signifying gale warnings, a single square red flag with a smaller black square for full gales, or tropical storms, and two of the red and black flags for hurricanes. The tower also displayed lighted signals at night. Small craft warnings were red over white; gale, white over red; full gale, or tropical storm, red over red, and hurricane, red over white over red.
A storm in 1910 was noted in the memoirs of Reverend George Gatewood, a circuit riding preacher who arrived in the late 1880s. Initially based in Alva, just up the Caloosahatchee River from Fort Myers, he first moved to Punta Gorda in 1902. However, in 1907 he was bitten by the “homesteader bug” and for the next 10 years lived near the intersection of today’s Bermont Road (SR 74) and State Road 31 in the community of Bermont. That storm was so severe, most of the large pine trees on high ground were toppled and the family sought shelter for the night in a strongly built feed storage shed near the barn when their house began to quiver. In the morning, fish were seen in the garden, swimming between rows of potato plants.
Photographs showing the effects of several area hurricanes can be viewed by visiting Charlotte County History Collections online; more on storms in my next column.