Seventy years ago in September 1947, Hurricane George, aka the Fort Lauderdale Hurricane struck the southeastern portion of the Florida peninsula with wind gusts of at least 155 mph and sustained winds of over 100 mph. The hurricane produced heavy rainfall, which caused damaging flooding along crop fields. Heavy damage was also reported from Fort Myers to Sarasota, and statewide damage from the hurricane totaled about $31 million ($330 million in 2017 dollars, however the actual damage today is estimated at about $110 billion due to increased development). The hurricane caused 11 direct fatalities in the state, and was indirectly responsible for six more.

On Sept. 18, the hurricane entered the Gulf of Mexico and threatened the Florida Panhandle including Franklin County, but veered south without making landfall. Later, George made landfall southeast of New Orleans, Louisiana on Sept. 19 as a strong Category 2 with winds of 110 mph.

 

Shelter from the Storm

Edwina Chauncy

The following narrative penned by Apalachicola’s Edwina Chauncy following the hurricane of September 1947 appeared originally in “Disaster,” a Red Cross publication devoted to relief and prevention dated January 1948. Mrs. Chauncy came to Apalachicola in 1946 with her husband, the late Clifford “Buck” Chauncy.

 

Hurricane nature is feminine, fickle, changeable and unpredictable. In Apalachico0la we had watched the progress of the savage autumn storm since it was first reported stirring its devil’s brew in the Atlantic. So when the hurricane shifted its course at sea and headed straight for the Florida coast we were not unprepared.

 

In Order

We boarded up windows, fastened storm shutters and accumulated extra food; readied kerosene lamps or candles and filled bathtubs and large utensils with water for emergency use. Then we closed and locked all windows and doors except those on the lee side.

Our own house in order, we reported to the Red Cross for volunteer work.

 

First Gales

Winds of gale force began while the storm center or “eye” was reported near Fort Myers, almost the entire length of the state away. Apalachicola lies on a point of land where the Apalachicola River merges with the bay of the same name. Since the first gales of a tropical hurricane coming up from the southwest or northeast blow toward the storm center, they tend to empty the bay of water. The real danger is more the high tidal water than the lashing winds. If the turn of the storm winds coincides with the normal rise of the tide, there is always the possibility of a disastrous flood tide.

In advance of the storm most people seek shelter in the more substantial public buildings. The Red Cross had sent word by members of the state highway patrol to all outlying settlements that transportation to the emergency shelters had been arranged for 1:30 in the afternoon. But long before noon families were moving in by car and on foot. The refugees had been asked to bring blankets, a change of clothes and shoes, a few personal things such as combs and toothbrushes. The families pouring in as fast as two workers could register them had none of these things – not even diapers for their babies. (Later we learned that triangle bandages have many uses not described in the first aid manual)

 

Not So Simple

We were working in the armory, a large building, ideal for the purpose with one immense hall, a large lounge with fireplace, several smaller rooms and a well-equipped kitchen. We had workers preparing food, supplying dry clothing and checking equipment such as kerosene lamps and stoves. We were volunteers all. We thought we were adequately supplied with cots, mattresses, chairs, benches, blankets, first aid materials and food. But we could not anticipate many of the needs which arose; it was not to be as simple as we thought.

We had expected to house a few pets and there were a few puppies. But the pig was a surprise. It was a cunning pig, very pink and newborn wrapped in a blanket up to its little black snout and tucked into a small carton with a baby bottle and milk for feeding.

“Do I write Mr. and Mrs. and pig?” the registrar asked.

“Yes,” we said, “In case anything happened to the pig we would be responsible and too it may be their next winter’s ham.”

A small boy asked, “Lady can a rabbit swim?”

“I don’t know son, but I’ll ask and try to find out for you.” Whereupon she asked several men. “Sonny,” she told him, “some say it can and some say it can’t and I just don’t know which is right. Why do you want to know?”

“I had to come off and leave mine in a pen at home,” he said, “and I’d feel a heap better if I knowed it could swim.” The men nearby all assured him that they knew rabbits did swim and the boy was content.

 

Human Pressure

As the afternoon wore on and the storm approached, barometric pressure dropped but within the building pressure was building up as more than 400 persons tried to settle down, each group it its selected spot. Families of 5 to 11 children accompanied by three or more adults were common.

Our fisher folk are a hardy lot who share a love of the open water. Scandinavian, Greek, German or Spanish ancestry. they show remarkably distinct racial traits. When they have a good strike of fish, oysters or shrimp, they live well; when their work is dull or out-of-season, they tighten their belts and suffer. They have a weathered, sun-cured look, a sensitive pride and deep love of their children and old ones. This we saw when two of the men whose homes were in danger set out to walk the ten dreary miles back home to see about their families.

All of the men who owned boats had taken them up the river to sheltered creeks for protection and some had not returned. Thus, many families consisted only of women and children, to whose natural fear of the storm was added worry over their men.

A little after dark word came than 12 persons, including a mother and her five-day old infant, were stranded across the river at Eastpoint. Three men with cars volunteered to go after them. I went along to care for the baby.

 

A Giant Finger

The wind was blowing 55 miles per hour at this time, but over the open causeway it seemed much stronger. Waves were even then spilling over the fills and across the road. Rain, driving straight at the windshield made visibility a thing of guesswork and the strength of the wind made control of the car difficult. We veered from one side to the other, following the tail light of the car ahead. I wondered what the lead car had to aim at.

We found the house a good 30 yards from the highway with a deep water-filled ditch between. Headlights of the cars furnished barely enough light to guide our feet over the narrow planks which lay across the roadside ditch. The baby was brought out first, safe and dry under his father’s heavy rubber coat.

We had no stretcher for the mother, so we placed her on a heavy comforter with a man holding each corner. In her case, I knew the method of carry didn’t matter and as long as she was brought safe and dry, we could afford to laugh at the jackknife she made when the four carriers were crowded together in crossing the planks. The return trip was a much easier ride although the gales, now behind us, gave a frequent quick push, as if a giant finger flipped at an annoying bug.

 

Off the Map

I have always heard of the speed at which rumor spreads in time of disaster, but now I know. On our return to the shelter, I heard that a well-known and unusually reliable news commentator had broadcast that Apalachicola was being “blown off the map.” Considering the fact that it was now early in the evening and the full force of a twister within the hurricane had not hit until around midnight, the broadcast was quite a feat of reporting or forecasting. It was not designed to create a sense of well-being in our part of the country.

I was standing nearby when a little middle-aged man, showing obvious anxiety came up to our mayor-elect and asked, “Is it true that Eastpoint has been wiped off the map?”

“Certainly not,” the mayor replied. “Don’t worry. Everything is all right over there.” As the man left, he added, “I hope that is true, but I couldn’t say anything else. He’s worried enough as it is and he couldn’t do one thing about it if the town is entirely gone.”

“It certainly was there an hour ago,” I was able to say reassuringly. “We didn’t see any damage over there.” I could have said, “We didn’t see, period.”

A few minutes later the little man was back. “If everything is all right, I think I’ll take my family and go home,” he said. We did some fast talking about changeable winds and tides before he would consent to stay in the shelter.

 

Town’s Destruction

But the rumor of the town’s destruction races across the continent. About midnight I answered a long-distance telephone call.

“This is Wayside, California,” the operator said. “Please call Mr. Neil North to the phone. He is a resident of Eastpoint…the town that was wiped off the map.”

I explained that it was midnight here, that Eastpoint, seven miles away, was still very much there and that there had been no casualties. Town’s Destruction

But the rumor of the town’s destruction races across the continent. About midnight I answered a long-distance telephone call.

“This is Wayside, California,” the operator said. “Please call Mr. Neil North to the phone. He is a resident of Eastpoint…the town that was wiped off the map.”

I explained that it was midnight here, that Eastpoint, seven miles away, was still very much there and that there had been no casualties.

After a few moments conversation with the party in California the operator said, “The call is cancelled.”

Everyone was hungry, especially the children and as the food supply became low the workers were sent out into the storm to look for more. By this time stores were generally boarded up, but the back door of one bakery was still open. Our search party returned triumphantly bearing several freshly baked pound cakes. I thought – is this another instance of “let them eat cake” when they need bread? But no, it was a treat and they liked it.

From stacks waist high, pads and mattresses were distributed first to small children, the aged and most needy. Two workers carried a mattress to a child and returned to discover that every mattress had disappeared from sight, like dust in a rain storm. We found them, one by one, dislodged a grumbling father or big babies but not without some protest – sometimes, surprisingly, from the women.

“Come over here, nurse please,” a voice called from a corner where a pretty young blonde sat, heavy with child.

“Her time’s come,” I was told.

 

Wrapped Well

I ask if arrangements had been made to enter her in the hospital and if they had transportation. She said yes to both inquiries: her husband was to take her in their truck. She was wrapped well in a blanket and helped by her husband and mother to get through the crowd.

I hated to think of that 30-mile ride in a truck along the coastal highway, for many miles exposed to the open gulf and undoubtedly buffeted by the wind and flying spray. The husband seemed nervous as I said, “Take it easy and do be careful…You have plenty of time.”

I crossed my fingers and said a little prayer. We heard the truck motor roar, falter, cough and catch again. It sounded as if it were tearing apart. I thought, oh God, they’ll never make it in that, and then the motor stopped and they were back in the hall not knowing what to do. One of the men there offered to take them in his car and they were soon off to a fresh start. We learned later that they made it in good time, even being delayed by hitting a fallen tree.

The local paper said it was a bouncing boy. Of one thing I am sure: he was bouncing before birth, whether or not he did after he arrived.

Back at the hall an anxious mother with a sick baby quietly asked, “Miss Nurse, will you come look at my baby? She’s having another sinking spell.” Once while I was checking the baby’s weak pulse, the grandmother slipped off her shoes. “I declare,” she said, “I just can’t stand my shoes on another minute, my feet hurt me so bad.” I saw three deep ulcers in the soft tissue.

While I was cleaning these and painting them with antiseptic, a small girl came up. “I got a sore toe to show you.” She put out a foot with toes badly encrusted with ground itch.

“How can you get your shoe on that foot?” I asked.

“I can’t no-how Ma’am,” she replied. “I ain’t got none.