A Walk through Estero Island History Part Six: Early Hurricanes- The Wrath of the Tropics

502

Sands of Time

Estero Island is a vulnerable, oversized sandbar, easily invaded and reconfigured by storms and hurricanes. Nobody can recount all the ravages nature wrought on these shores before the late 1800’s. But even a modest retrospective of the 20th and 21st Centuries provides many cautionary tales about sculpting dreams out of sand.

The Hurricane City database (http://www.hurricanecity.com) indicates Fort Myers and Port Charlotte have been affected or “brushed” by a hurricane, on average, every three years in the past 150 years. Fortunately, the area’s peak tourism period falls outside hurricane season, but those who return to Fort Myers Beach after a major blast of Mother Nature’s wrath witness the huge changes this island can experience in mere hours.

Hurricanes Charley in 2004 and Wilma in 2005 left an imprint on Fort Myers Beach that’s still visible more than a decade later. And those weren’t even direct hits. Ask Punta Gorda, Sanibel or Captiva how much their landscapes were altered by those two storms.

For the really scary stuff, travel back across the sands of time to an era before TV, Doppler radar and organized weather forecasts; before storms had names. Some are still recalled by those who survived them – and through recorded stories, by their offspring.

1921

On the southern tip of Estero Island, the “eternal” cement tomb of supposedly immortal Cyrus Teed (aka Koresh) – founder of the Koreshan Unity based in mainland Estero – was demolished in a massive storm that completely over-washed and reshaped the southern end of the island.

It may have been this hurricane (or was it the 1926 tempest?) that tore a New Pass through Lovers’ Key on the approach to Bonita Beach. Despite its shoal-strewn entrance, this is still a popular route into Estero Bay from the Gulf of Mexico.

1926

The 1926 hurricane was one of the most devastating in southwest Florida’s modern history. Thousands died to the east in Moore Haven when Lake Okeechobee overflowed its banks and flooded the towns that surround it.

On Estero Island (then known as Crescent Beach), Hurricane Pass was gouged out of a narrow spit of land. The storm destroyed a budding subdivision called San Carlos on the Gulf and carved off San Carlos Island as a separate entity from the mainland.

Houses on Estero Island blew off their foundations. A few people reportedly lashed themselves into the tops of palm trees to survive. Families took shelter in their cars – one of which was dragged a quarter of a mile through the brush (all aboard survived). This island was very sparsely populated, so few property losses were recorded. But, according to the Town of Fort Myers Beach website:

A Cuban fishing boat, wrecked off Estero Island, lost six men; only the captain and a

young boy were saved. Two women were drowned by high waves at Punta Rassa.

Destruction caused by the 1926 hurricane was a factor in the sudden end of the 1925 land boom. Many years would pass before feverish building of subdivisions and roads returned to this quiet little island.

1944

The 1944 storm wreaked havoc on the island. According to Jean Gottlieb’s book Coconuts & Coquinas:

. . . [the storm] came right out of the Gulf. On Pearl Street . . . there was a Model A car. Anything that’s setting, the water digs. That car settled down so you couldn’t see the top of it.

island history, fort myers beach, island sand paper, hurricanes
Ruth Brame in front of the Gulf Shores Inn, 1944.

The entire island was submerged under six feet of water, and three days passed before anyone could get back onto these shores except by boat (the swing bridge at the north end – the island’s only bridge – had blown out).

Over 30 Estero Island cottages were destroyed and 10 to 12 feet of sand depth disappeared from the north end of the island, leaving the Gulf Shore Inn way up high on its pilings above the sand. Said longtime resident, the late Connie Brigham:

It was almost impossible to tell where there had been a road. . . . Cottages were moved all over the place . . . there were a lot of houses on the wrong side of Estero Boulevard.

Storm water reportedly reached all the way inland to the Santini family potato farm at the intersection of San Carlos Blvd. and Pine Ridge Road.

Hurricane Donna: 1960

Donna was the last hurricane to make a direct landing on Fort Myers Beach, in an era with a fraction of the current permanent and tourist population. Donna blasted ashore on September 10 bearing 140-mile-per-hour winds and a 12-foot storm surge, leaving 75% of the homes on Fort Myers Beach damaged or demolished.

The island dead-ended in those days; Big Carlos Pass Bridge would not be completed for several years yet. Boats were blasted into the Estero Bay mangroves along with cottages ripped from their foundations.

Houses that sat 10 feet up on pilings had seawater over their floorboards and into the closets. Several feet of sand, tree wreckage and debris buried Estero Boulevard.

This author’s parents had purchased in 1955 a sturdy beachfront cottage and guest house built in the early 1940’s at Aberdeen Avenue (now Beach Access #14). Safe at home in Chicago, Dad received a phone call two days after the storm that advised him to come down to tend to his property.

Fearing the worst, Harry Gottlieb found both houses still standing. Roof and siding shingles had blown off, stairs were washed away and the Gulf-front house sat at several feet higher elevation due to all the sand scoured out from beneath. Amazingly, the 12-foot-long picture window facing the Gulf was intact.

The family fishing boat, powered by an outboard motor, had been secured to a post underneath the house. All that remained were the plank and attached steering wheel chained to a piling.

In the lower-lying guest cottage beside Estero Blvd., floors and wastebaskets were awash in salt water. The floors were warped and buckled.

Dad picked up a hitchhiker on the island a few days into this visit. “Gottlieb,” the passenger mused. “That name rings a bell. Why, I found your mailbox in my back yard!” A mile distant, the aluminum mailbox had flown through the air in hurricane winds and landed relatively unscathed.

These anecdotes are trivial compared to the 50 deaths and $2.5 billion in property damage Donna left on her rampage from Florida up through New England.

One can only imagine the devastation a Donna-size storm could inflict today.

The April 7 issue of Sands of Time will revisit the most damaging local hurricane of the past 50 years: 2004’s Charley.

 

Janet Sailian

All Photos courtesy of Estero Island Historic Society