SUSAN R. PARKER: Today’s hurricanes beg for historical comparisons

A month has passed since Hurricane Irma whipped through our community and a year since Hurricane Matthew did so. Reminders of both storms are still with us. Piles of brown and brittle yard debris remain banked on many streets — unattractive and at times annoying. More serious are the repairs not yet made to homes or businesses flooded by Matthew and now Irma.

 

We often like to look back to earlier storms to compare. The storms change less over time than do the locales where they strike.

In the middle of October 1950 a storm that sounds similar to Irma or Matthew came through St. Augustine. The waters of the San Sebastian and Matanzas rivers met, just like the 1944 hurricane. In some places water was a high as four feet and at the south end of Avenida Menendez, two cars were almost submerged.

Descriptions of that storm suggest that there was a substantial storm surge. Sustained winds were reported here at 60 miles per hour with gusts up to 80 or 100. In 1950 “tropical storm” and “hurricane” were used interchangeably, probably based on the imprecise definition of the writer or speaker.

The Saffir-Simpson scale with its categories for storm strength was not introduced until to the public until 1973. Herbert Saffir and Robert Simpson created the scale to categorize the potential for damage to buildings based on wind speed. In 1953, we began to name hurricanes. Hurricanes had unofficial names before then. They were usually after-the-fact names based on the date of the weather event, such as the Labor Day hurricane of 1935.

In the Caribbean, hurricanes often carried the names of saints, named for the saint’s day when the storms struck. With a hurricane as long-lived as Irma, that practice would cause confusion as the storm hit different venues on different days.

In 1950, the St. Augustine Record building — then at the corner of Bridge and Cordova streets — was surrounded by four feet of water. A special small format “hurricane edition” was printed using a hand-operated press. Thus, the Record fulfilled a treasured tradition among newspapers to never miss a regularly scheduled publication. During Hurricane Irma the Record published a newspaper every day although road and bridge closings prevented some deliveries on some days. But when the roads re-opened, a cache of newspapers for several days arrived. Online editions were available each day to those who had electricity or internet connections.

My parents had several stories that they would re-tell about the 1950 hurricane. They lived on the landward side of Comares Avenue, a few houses south of today’s Conch House. But in 1950 there was no Conch Island to buffer the brunt of the ocean. Instead, there was a series of sand bars that would eventually anchor the barrier island and gather sand. Maps and photographs of that time show Bird Island east of today’ s Anastasia State Park. The shape-changing “Crazy Banks” farther north don’t even appear on the map.

My mother told the story that in the middle of the afternoon the east-facing bedroom window blew in while ocean water rose quickly in the yard. Slivers of window glass flew across the room and into the crib where my 8-month-old brother lay. Her recollection of the time of the high wind and rain matched The Record’s report that the highest winds came between 3 and 4 p.m. as the center of the storm moved west of the city.

Meanwhile, my father was trying to get home but my mother did not know it because telephone (of course, land line) service was out. Both Daddy and the nextdoor neighbor worked on San Marco Avenue. They began walking from there to Comares Avenue, knowing a car would drown out at some point. Whether they walked across the Bridge of Lions or somehow got a ride, I don’t know. Of course, today they would have been restricted from crossing the bridge when he was needed.

When the window blew in, my mother grabbed a metal trash can to catch the rain coming in the window opening. Soon neighbors arrived and nailed boards over the window opening. The Oct. 18, 1950, hurricane was just another story and memory.

Fifty-five years later, in 2005, I readied my parents’ Comares Avenue home for sale and pulled out the carpet in the bedroom with the east-facing window. There was the black ring of stain left on the wood floor by the trash can when my mother tried to catch the hurricane’s rain in 1950.

Susan R. Parker holds a doctorate in colonial history.

 

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