Hurricanes and storms are a part of Florida culture as are the lavish beaches and year round warm weather. With today’s technology there is plenty of warning time to prepare and/or evacuate, but that was not the case seven decades ago when the storm of 1944 barreled over the entire island causing nearly $150,000 in damage ($2 million in 2015 value).
In 1944, the U.S. along with its allies was in the thick of WWII. Even though most young men were stationed over-seas; some were on Fort Myers Beach as were women and children on the island as the storm barreled through.
The Storm Rages
On the morning of October 20, one headline in the News-Press read “Red Coconut, 15 Cottages Wiped Away.” The article continued, “Hurricane winds reaching an estimated 90 miles an hour rolled gulf waters entirely over Estero Island early yesterday morning, destroyed at least 15 cottages, and battered all the large Fort Myers Beach hotels, inns, and dining rooms. The Red Coconut was completely demolished, others suffered leaser damage.”
It was recorded that at 3 o’clock in the morning water started to approach the island and within a short time the island was under “three to six feet for at least three hours.” Winds were estimated at 90 to 100 miles per hour, houses shook violently, and trees were blown down. The island lost power around ten p.m., and waves reached a height of ten feet. Sand washed up onto the roads, in some places measuring a foot deep. It was not until two in the afternoon that cars could finally move through the island.
According to H. C. Sumner’s “Hurricanes and Tropical Disturbances of 1944,” the U.S. Weather Bureau reported that the hurricane of October 1944 was the “final hurricane of the season [and made landfall] near Sarasota with winds of over 115 mph. The winds severely damaged the citrus crop . . .A total of 18 people were killed in the state.”
Red Coconut Cottages and other Buildings Gone
In 1932, Dr. F. H. Voorhis built the Red Coconut Cottages. Twelve years later, thanks to the Hurricane of ‘44, nothing was left. The paper stated that it was “totally demolished. Only a big pile of sand and a pile of lumber remained.” A jukebox, large safe, and a piano were found in the sand; all other furnishings were never found.
The Pelican, which was a club for military personnel had its entire two-story front porch destroyed. The lower lever of the building was gutted while the upstairs sustained minimal damage.
Cyril Shawcross owned the Commodore that was “severely damaged. The front section, which was an open veranda downstairs, and was enclosed on the second story, was completely gone.” The second story of the building collapsed down onto the first floor and was hanging a few feet from the ground. Other near-by cottages were blown away in the storm.
What was reported as the hardest hit area of the beach was Nettie’s and the Gulf Shore Inn. “The entire first floor of both of these places was gone, with the second floor standing up on the piling.” A row of five houses behind Nettie’s were also completely gone from their foundations; some of which were blown 200 feet and landed in front of Nettie’s.
Other damages included the beach pier had washed away, and boats were strewn about the island and piled on top of one another.
A Positive Note
Retired marine contractor, J. L. Loftin went to survey the island shortly after the storm dissipated. He argued that the storm in fact had a positive effect for the island. “The waves piled up sand to improve many sections of the beach,” he shared with a news reporter.
The beach community as always, pulled together and neighbor helped neighbor and within time the island came back to life as usual. It would be another 16 years until Hurricane Donna paid the island a visit, but this time residents were more prepared.
Although on November 30, hurricane season as we call it comes to an end, Mother Nature doesn’t always play by the rules. It is just best to always be prepared, know your evacuation route, and stay safe.
Southwest Florida historian Timothy Jacobs serves as an advisor to the Southwest Florida Historical Society and is a regular contributor of articles about early life on the beach.