History of Santa Rosa County, A King's County

by M. Luther King. Used with permission.

 HURRICANES

Any descriptive material, descriptive of the natural phenomena of this area, as of all Florida, which omitted a descriptive treatment of hurricanes, would be thought of as remiss in its responsibility to readers.

The most often used bugaboo to try to discourage people who would come to Florida areas, either as permanent residents or as transient visitors, is the tropical hurricane which sometimes visits this state. The long time resident or the native Floridian takes them more or less in stride and loses very little sleep because of them. Actually in our country no place is completely immune from them, but they do visit Florida a little more often than some other places.

None of the hurricanes that have visited our own area here, Santa Rosa County, may be said to have been catastrophic, but some have been much more severe than others; some have had some historical significance.

Our purpose here is to point out the more severe ones of some significance and to try to point up their real significance, if any, to our people.

First of all though, what is a hurricane?

Hurricanes are one of a series of winds and storms which are described as cyclones. The word cyclone itself is derived from a word which literally interpreted means "coils of a snake" and is so named because such winds revolve about a common center of low barometer readings in a counter-clockwise direction. The anti-cyclone is made up of an air circulation which revolves about (and out of) a center of high barometer readings in clockwise direction (such statements being true for northern hemisphere but are reversed for southern hemisphere).

Strictly speaking, winds are not termed of hurricane force until they attain a velocity of 75 miles per hour; yet we know that they can be, and are, a part of a hurricane circulation at a much lower velocity. The winds at the outer limits of a hurricane circulation are light but increase in velocity as one approaches the center or eye of the circulation; yet the eye itself is an area of comparative calm, again decreasing if one were to move outward from the eye towards the opposite outer fringe. A velocity of 128 miles per hour was recorded during such a storm at Miami Beach, September 18, 1926, and such velocities are not at all unusual near to the center of a major hurricane. This center would perhaps usually measure some fifteen miles in diameter and would, therefore, require about an hour to pass over a given point, were the hurricane moving ahead at a rate of fifteen miles per hour. Other conditions, than nearly perfect calm, mark this center; the barometric reading is much higher, the relative humidity much lower, and the temperature is also appreciably lower. Actually, the wind currents point towards this center or eye of a hurricane and these conditions combined create a tremendous updraft of air at the edges of this eye. Winds, therefore, will be much stronger, partly because of the forward movement of the entire body of the storm area, just to the right of an approaching eye than elsewhere about the storm center; there too will be the strongest coastal tidal movements.

The very name hurricane is of some interest in its derivation. It is probably derived from the word Hunraken, the name of a god of the Guatemala Indians who was their god of storms.

The genesis of any particular hurricane is in itself of interest to us. A given set of conditions will usually produce a hurricane and modern meteorologists knowing those conditions can, as a rule, predict the formation and movements of our tropical hurricanes. Hurricanes, our most powerful storms, are produced as the result of the nearly perfect calms (doldrums) which occur in a belt between the prevailing winds just north and those just south of the equator. The width of this belt of calm varies because of the deflective results caused by the rotation of the earth. Since these doldrums are farthest north, in our area, during August and September this in part accounts for the more likely occurrence of hurricanes during that season of the year. Likewise the doldrums are farthest south in our area at the opposite season of the year, and we have our fewest number of hurricanes during that period.

The convectional movement of air upward in an area of relative calm, as to any forward movement, results in the beginning of a counter-clockwise circulation around a given center which, when aided by the deflection of air resulting from the rotation of the earth, increases in its intensity and gains forward movement. From such time forward it may be a constantly selfgenerated and self-maintained circulation which gains in intensity as long as the given conditions are maintained. (There are no South Atlantic hurricanes because the South Atlantic does not have all the hurricane productive characteristics.) The foregone conclusion after weighing all factors which go to make up and maintain a hurricane must be that not only the winds but also the rains and tidal movements will be much greater in the right front quadrant of a given hurricane.

The rapidly rising air currents, the terrific velocities of conflicting air currents give rise to two other components of the typical tropical hurricane: lightning and thunder and tornadoes, respectively. These likewise are much more common in their occurrence in the right front quadrant of a given hurricane. The given set of conditions which are most likely to produce hurricanes near our country are more likely to be found, at times, in the western Caribbean Sea area and in the eastern and southeastern Gulf of Mexico area. Although these are the most likely areas of their origins, they may, of course, originate in adjacent areas. Following their formation, they are most likely to move in a northerly (north, northwest, northeast) direction (because of the very conditions under which they originate).

Since the time of the very earliest white explorers, these phenomena that we now know as tropical hurricanes have been the subjects of close observation. They were so strange and unusual to those Mediterranean explorers that they seemed never to cease in their wonderment of them.

Columbus during his return voyage towards Spain, following his voyage of discovery of America, encountered a tropical hurricane of such force that he despaired of saving his vessels (February 1493). This same explorer on his other trips to his New World encountered severe tropical hurricanes in June 1494, and in October 1495, when he lost three ships; and on his last voyage in 1502, June or July.

Contemporary accounts describe a terrific tropical hurricane of 1559 which literally destroyed the original settlement that we now know as Pensacola as well as a portion of the fleet sent there to support that settlement. There were in all likelihood many such storms during the sixteenth century for which we have no records.

There seem to be no reliable records extant for the tropical storms of the seventeenth century for the area. However, the eighteenth century records one that at least had some historical significance where this area has been concerned. This great storm struck during October 16-21 of 1780 and completely dispersed and disabled a Spanish fleet under Admiral Solano which had sailed from Havana with the expressed intention of retaking Pensacola.

The so-called 'Great Barbados" hurricane of August 12-18, 1831, was felt greatly in this area although its center crossed the coast somewhat west of Mobile. It remained for the so-called "Racers' Storm" of September 27-October 10, 1837, to produce some of the most unusual freaks of any tropical hurricane. It crossed this county from the west, travelling almost due eastward, and the center crossed the northern part of the county rather than the beach or coastal area. The tangled, twisted, crossed trees uprooted by that storm were remembered by "old timers" with whom I talked and who have only during the last few years "passed on to their rewards." When I talked with those "old timers" about such storms, there were still "old hurricanes," as they called the gigantic roots upheaved by such storms, remaining as mute evidence of the fury of that storm gigantic "lightwood" stumps with all the large brace roots attached, and with the deep piercing taproots of giant longleaf yellow pines lying horizontal along the ground, with the "brace (lateral) roots" pointing skyward. It must have been a "perilous time."

During a hurricane in 1844 Havana, Key West, Apalachicola, and Milton were all heavily damaged. (Apalachicola had been hard hit by a serious hurricane in 1843, which completely swept away Port Leon and did much damage to St. Marks and Tallahassee.) During the hurricane of 1844 the tidal water rose to the height of thirty feet at Jackson Morton's brickyard upstream on Blackwater from Milton (on the river but adjacent to the little community later known as Roeville.) We do not know how much of this "so-called" tidal water was actually tidal water and how much of it was rain water which was being drained out of the "piney woods" by Blackwater, and its tributaries and the Yellow River system. The case, whatever it may be however, meant that there was an abundant amount of water on the surface throughout this area. Just imagine, if you will, what could be meant to this area today with a sudden (more or less) rise of water to a height of thirty feet above its normal average level rather something to think about, isn't it?

Evidently there was not a great deal more hurricane activity in this area during the period 1845-1851, but it was during that year, 1851, that a severe hurricane again caused so much damage at Apalachicola and some damage to Milton.

During the last days of August (27-30) in 1851, a violent hurricane which crossed Cuba (more or less lengthwise) from east to west, curved inland, then crossed the coastal area between Pensacola and Mobile doing a great deal of damage.

The storm of early September, 1875, followed nearly an identical path of the earlier one called in some places "Racers" storm of 1837 but was, apparently, not nearly so violent as the earlier one.

Another and later storm followed nearly the same path, but neither was it so violent. This storm was in late August of 1893. One of September, 1900, passed close enough to be felt in its tidal effects which reached far enough inland to cause much damage as far away as Niagara Falls. A storm of September 17-18, 1901, is remembered by many of the "old timers."

Milton Hurricane, September 27, 1906. Train was stranded for two weeks because of high water.
View of a back street in Milton following 12906 hurricane.

The years until 1906 were the quietest ones of record in so far as hurricanes are concerned, but that year -like the years 1916 and 1926 will be long remembered for the severity of the hurricane which struck Milton and Santa Rosa County on September 27, the center striking at about 4:00 A.M. Damage was great. The highest wind velocity was from the east just before the center passed over Milton (right front quadrant). During this same year (Oct. 20-21), it is interesting to note here because of the consternation it caused, a rather severe hurricane crossed and recrossed Florida, crossing in the vicinity of Miami on October 18th, then having completely reversed its direction of travel, recrossing from the vicinity of Daytona Beach, DeLand, and Bradenton.

 

Scene of Willings Street, facing south, following 1916 hurricane.

 

The years until 1916 were almost devoid of hurricanes (even tropical disturbances); but that year, as we have pointed out previously, "stands out" as one of the "great hurricane years," especially in our vicinity.

During that year two great hurricane centers crossed the coast here in almost identically the same area, travelling in nearly identical directions -north; but one of them was on July 6, whereas the other was on October 18. Milton and Santa Rosa County were so nearly the exact center of those storm areas that the opposing winds which blew before and after the passage of the center (or eye) caused great and peculiar damage to timber, crops, and livestock.

Authoritative sources positively chart only one hurricane in the year 1917, and that one's center crossed the coast south of Milton during the middle of the night of September 28-29 causing great damage in some areas nearby, such as in the "east side" Pensacola area adjacent to what is now the foot of Pensacola Bay bridge. This same storm caused the loss of five or more lives at Crestview apparently, but none at Milton.

The war and postwar years (World War 1) 1918-1925 did not, apparently, see the breeding of nearly so many major hurricanes; and it seems now, in retrospect, that most of them of any serious magnitude missed this particular area -they seem to have been either east or west of the Milton-Santa Rosa area; however, only one of them was of major proportion here. To many of the people of Florida, it is known as the "Miami" hurricane. The broadcast band of radio was in its infancy then, but it was of enough stature to enable Florida people to much better track this hurricane themselves.

"The Miami Hurricane" first showed definite hurricane characteristics somewhere south of the Cape Verde Islands about September 5, 1926. It followed a very nearly perfect NNW. course, the center crossing the beach SSE. of Milton about midnight of September 20-21. Many of the usual phenomena of tropical hurricanes were much intensified here during that storm. Rarely has there been anywhere near the rainfall experienced here during that storm period. The heavy rain fall coupled with a strong SSE. wind during much of the storm time, and a heavy "spring" tide, occurring at about the time the "eye" of the storm passed Milton, caused one of the worst floods of Milton's history. A strong current of water was flowing across Highway 90 between the Milton Drug Store and the old McGraw's Shoe Shop. Many homes in the lower portions of Milton and Santa Rosa County were flooded.

Just as it has, it seems, happened other times when we have had an especially violent storm, there seems to have been something of a respite. 1927-1934 saw most of the recorded hurricanes giving Milton and Santa Rosa County a wide berth. Even 1935, which saw major hurricane damage to parts of peninsular Florida, saw none in our area.

The year 1936, however, saw a storm which was first about Turk's Island develop into a major storm which was worse at Fort Walton Beach and Crestview than at Milton. It reached Fort Walton Beach about midnight July 31-August 1, 1936. This was one of those rare tropical Florida hurricanes which developed strength after it had passed Miami. It blew at Miami (which was in its path) at most 65 miles per hour but at Fort Walton Beach and Valparaiso developed velocities of 100 miles per hour with a barometer reading at 28.73. The years 1937 and 1938, especially 1938, saw most of the tropical hurricanes hurting the New England States; likewise 1939-1946 saw most of the hurricanes avoid Florida and especially our own area.

The year 1947 tells us a somewhat different story: a disturbance was reported on September 1 of that year on the west coast of West Africa from whence it passed out to sea; on September 2, it was reported in the vicinity of Cape Verde Islands; from September 5 on a constant watch was kept on it by reconnaissance planes, and it was reported at Abaco Island of the Bahamas. Changing its direction slightly (from West Northwest to West Southwest), it crossed the east Florida coast near Miami and gained in its intensity somewhat after it had crossed the Florida peninsula into the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf coast from Santa Rosa County to New Orleans was hard hit. The "eye" of this hurricane was about twenty-five miles in width.

This was one of the few hurricane emergencies during which Milton and Santa Rosa County was "all out"; people were warned out of low-lying areas near the coast, power was shut off, and emergency and first-aid stations were set up and stocked in public buildings.

It is perhaps true, as some "old timers" say, "Hurricanes are worse now that there's so little 'big timber' to break their force."

The years of 1948 and 1949 were somewhat quiet hurricane-wise in this immediate area (Milton-Santa Rosa County).

The year 1950, on the other hand, was very prolific of hurricanes of "full force"; however, only one of those caused any great concern to this area -one which crossed the coast just west of Pensacola on the night of August 30. Damage to property was high and in spite of repeated warnings, there was loss of life. Winds were recorded along the Baldwin County, Alabama coast at 115 miles per hour. Also the right-front quadrant of this storm bred some tornado winds, especially one at Apalachicola and one in Jackson County.

The year 1951 was devoid of any appreciable disturbance that would rate the term hurricane in our area, likewise 1952 and 1953. The designated hurricanes of 1954 were New England coast hurricanes for the most part. Finally in 1955 such hurricanes as there were, were either east or west of our area.

Since 1953 hurricanes have been designated by names of girls as Alice, Barbara, Connie, Dianne, etc. It does not take a great deal of deductive reasoning to understand why these two unpredictables should have a likeness of names.

 

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