Good day to all! Did you know the first “named” hurricane to strike this area was Donna? As stated in my previous column, the United States began naming storms using only female names in 1953. That practice was modified in 1978 when men’s names were included for Eastern North Pacific storms. Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico storms started receiving male names in 1979.
Anson Gaskill, born May 21, 1912, in the community of Charlotte Harbor, recalling the 1921 storm, was awakened at 3 a.m. by his dad. The family quickly evacuated from their home near the bay on Bayshore Road close by the foot of Oakley Street, to the new school a short distance away due to rising water. The Charlotte Harbor School had been completed the year before and was located just off King’s Highway where Schoolhouse Square Shopping Center is today.
Constructed of brick, it was two stories high. After two nights and a day on the second floor, the water had receded enough that they could return home, discovering water had reached two and a half feet deep in the school and their home respectively.
The great hurricane of 1926 made land fall on Sept. 17 at Miami, traveled across the state and reached this area on Sept. 21. Although weakened, it was still strong enough to lift the Church of the Good Shepherd, then at the corner of West Virginia Avenue and Cross Street (U.S. 41 south), off its foundation toppling the bell tower. Rising water also severely damaged the new city dock at the foot of Sullivan Street and flooded streets. This is the storm that killed hundreds when water was blown out of Lake Okeechobee over its southern bank.
Sept. 11, 1960, saw the arrival of Hurricane Donna. Still the only storm of record to produce hurricane force winds in Florida, the Mid-Atlantic States and New England. Being eight years old, I remember it “fondly” since opening day at the just completed Saint Charles Borromeo School was delayed a week. Sort of like snow days in the north, I suppose.
Like the great hurricane of 1926, Donna’s strong winds blew out of the northeast until only the harbor’s channel contained water and flooding occurred when the wind shifted. This time it was the First Presbyterian Church, then on Harvey Street across from City Hall, that lost its bell tower. Sanctuaries of the Bethel A.M.E. Church at the corner of East Olympia Avenue and Wood Street, and Saint Mark’s Missionary Baptist Church at East Virginia Avenue and Dupont Street were also badly damaged. The former’s wood frame building had to be replaced with the current sanctuary of concrete block construction. When the storm reentered the Atlantic Ocean later that day near Daytona Beach, sustained winds still exceeded 100 miles per hour.
The most interesting occurrences to a then 8-year-old, besides no water in the harbor, were the “eye” passing over us, we went outside in the calm, and roofs of newly constructed General Development homes strewn all over Edgewater Boulevard in the Gardner Avenue area. Our 1926 home on the bay lost only one piece of tin off the back-porch roof.
Historically, the Charlotte Harbor area feels the full impact of a major storm every 18 years. The most recent, many of us know, was in August 2004 and there’s been enough written about Charley. Unfortunately, my childhood home did not fare as well that time around. Donna, along with Charley, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne, Irma and Michael are among the 88 names that will never be used again due to the storms’ severity. Retirement of storm names for a 10-year period began in 1955, but became permanent in 1969.
Hurricane photos can still be viewed on the Punta Gorda History Center’s website.
“Did You Know” appears every other Wednesday, courtesy of this newspaper and the Charlotte County Historical Center Society. The Society’s mission is to help promote and preserve Charlotte County’s rich history. A family membership is only $35 and provides complimentary access to over 300 museums and technical centers nationwide. We are also always looking for volunteers and interested individuals to serve as board members. If you believe our area’s history is as important as we do, please visit www.charlottecountyfl.gov/services/historical/ or call 941-613-3228 for more information.