Florida's Hurricane History
by Jay Barnes
Second Edition

424 pp., 139 photos, 87 maps, 3 tables
$25.95 paperback, $42.95 hardcover
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    Donna was a husky lass,
    A lusty dame was she,
    She kicked her heels and swirled her skirts,
    And shrieked in fiendish glee.
    She ripped at all our buildings,
    Uprooted trees galore.
    She took the Gulf of Mexico,
    And flung it on the shore.
    She blew her breath from North and East,
    And then gave us the eye.
    And when she found we still were here,
    She made another try.
    From South and West she did her best,
    A thorough job to make.
    She passed with great reluctance,
    Leaving havoc in her wake.
    --"Donna," by W. R. "Plumb Bob" Wilson; courtesy of the Collier County Museum

After buffeting the northern coast of Cuba with strong winds and high surf, the storm labeled by the press as the "Killer Hurricane" turned toward the northwest and headed for the Florida Keys. On September 7, the same newspapers that had carried stories of the devastation Donna left in the Caribbean ran headlines that all of South Florida was on alert. At 11:00 a.m. the following day, the dreaded warning flags--red with black squares--were hoisted throughout the Keys. Weather Bureau bulletins placed the hurricane in frightening perspective by stating that it packed the same energy as a hydrogen bomb exploding every eight minutes. Many Keys residents, reminded of the awesome Labor Day storm of a generation before, packed their bags and left for Homestead and Miami. The population of the upper Keys was only 3,126 in 1960 (compared with over 24,000 in 1997), and about half of the residents from Marathon to Tavernier chose to not take any chances and fled the approaching hurricane.

Left: In Fort Myers, Donna's gusting winds blew this fully loaded tractor trailer off the Edison Bridge and into the Caloosahatchee River. The driver of the truck was killed, the only fatality directly attributed to the hurricane in the Fort Myers area. Although the storm was most intense in the Keys, much of the peninsula was affected by high winds. (Photo courtesy of the Fort Myers Historical Museum)
Right: In the wake of Donna, Florida residents were forced to dig themselves out just as they had so many times before. (Photo courtesy of Noel Risnychok)

Gale-force winds were first felt in the early evening of September 9, and conditions worsened toward midnight. Winds picked up dramatically early on the tenth, just before the storm's twenty-one-mile-wide eye swept over the middle Keys at about 2:30 a.m. Winds howled at over 150 mph, and a storm tide of thirteen feet pounded the narrow string of islands. Keys residents were under siege by the worst storm to strike the region since 1935. Donna's forward speed slowed as it raked the Keys, which would amplify its effects over its next target--the southwestern corner of mainland Florida.

The mighty storm began to recurve toward the northwest over Florida Bay and paralleled the coastline while passing over Cape Romano, Naples, and Fort Myers. Its turn to the north sharpened and its forward speed increased as it passed through central Florida on the afternoon of September 10. It maintained vigor on its course across the state, with winds over 100 mph reported from numerous inland locations. It continued on a northeasterly track until it returned to the Atlantic just north of Ormond Beach at about 4:00 a.m. on September 11. Even as it returned to sea, wind gusts of 99 mph were measured at the Federal Aviation Administration tower at Daytona Beach.

Like many other great hurricanes in Florida's history, Donna's visit to the United States wasn't over when it pulled away from the Sunshine State. Rapid reintensification and forward acceleration occurred once it reached the warm Gulf Stream waters off the Georgia and South Carolina coasts. By the time the storm reached the beaches of North Carolina on the evening of the eleventh, it was racing toward the northeast at over 30 mph, and maximum sustained winds were up to 115 mph. During the afternoon, several small tornadoes touched down in coastal South Carolina, causing much damage and several injuries. Even though the hurricane regained intensity before it struck the North Carolina coast, its eye had expanded to become a broad, diffuse area of calm, ranging from fifty to eighty miles in diameter. It made landfall around 10:00 p.m., inflicting extensive damages from Topsail Beach to the Virginia line. Donna was particularly destructive from Morehead City to the Outer Banks, where it was considered worse than any of the severe storms of the past decade.

After passing into the Atlantic off the Virginia capes, Donna paralleled the mid-Atlantic states and sped toward New England. The western edge of its eye brushed the coast from Virginia to New York, with many coastal areas reporting periods of intermittent calm. At Ocean City, Maryland, where winds of 83 mph were recorded before the anemometer was disabled, it was described as the worst storm in the city's history. The eye apparently was further enlarged to almost 100 miles in width as it approached the New York coast. High winds and record tides pushed onto the waterfront at Atlantic City, New Jersey, and the Battery in New York City. Finally, the indomitable hurricane made landfall again on Long Island at about 2:00 p.m. on September 12. Several stations on Long Island reported sustained winds over 100 mph, and gusts of 125-30 mph were recorded at the eastern end of the island. It then passed into eastern Connecticut, through southeastern New Hampshire, and diagonally across Maine. As it tracked over New England, cooler air was entrained in the storm's circulation, and it began to weaken. By the time it raced into Newfoundland and over the Davis Strait, the once mighty storm was reduced to a broad frontal low.

Alligators, snakes, and rats were a menace in the weeks after the storm. Numerous snakebites were reported, mostly from the reptiles that had taken up residence in homes and furnishings. One truck driver had operated his vehicle for three days before discovering a rattlesnake coiled under the seat. The proliferation of rats was a health concern and prompted the state to implement a rodent control program. Five thousand pieces of poisoned meat were distributed over South Florida by boat and helicopter in an effort to exterminate the vermin. Leaflets were dropped from airplanes over Goodland and Marco advising residents to boil all drinking water, get immunizations, and keep children from playing in contaminated streams and lakes. Amazingly, no lives were lost in Collier County, and not a single case of a communicable disease was reported in the entire state following Donna's visit.

Hurricane Donna was widely regarded as the most destructive hurricane in Florida's history. Its south-to-north journey through the eastern United States was unprecedented, and a new generation of coastal residents witnessed the power of a great storm. A 1961 summary published in the Monthly Weather Review defined Donna's place in history: "Donna was unique in that it gave hurricane force winds to Florida, the Middle Atlantic States, and New England. However, although it was one of the most destructive hurricanes of all time, loss of life was remarkably low. This can be attributed to three factors--timely and accurate warnings, effective dissemination by news media and other agencies, and the taking of proper precautions by the public. The accuracy of the warnings is in large part a reflection of the continuous tracking by aircraft reconnaissance and land-based radar, which was probably the most complete of any hurricane in history."

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