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 about her experience as a relief worker during Fort Lauderdale Hurricane of 1947
Lack of Water
We made her stretch out on a mattress. Her shoes and stockings were soaking wet. As we removed the shoes and started to take off the hose she said, “I been a-wearing these here stockings day and night onter a year and I ain’t a-going to catch my death of cold by taking them off now!”
We had plumbing trouble – lots of it. Here we found our greatest difficulty, the lack of running water. We should have had large cans or barrels of water placed by each toilet in case of shortage. We realized later that our water supply was dependent on electricity, but by the time the power gave out it was too late to get an emergency water supply.
Lights and telephones had been out since early afternoon and now there was no water. Gasoline lanterns or kerosene lamps were placed at the most effective spots, one of these being near the entrance to the men’s restrooms. As this was up a flight of steps on a balcony above the main room, lights were necessary. We had a great deal of trouble keeping the lantern there.
We would put the lantern in place and a short time later, someone would remove it saying, “My husband can’t see to get upstairs.” We rushed back to find the lantern far away. After about five such trips we discovered that amorous couples were using the stairway and balcony for love-making. We sent a policeman to explain which was the more important use. There was also a poker game in the men’s room which someone wanted broken up. But the players were quiet and it was a diversion from fear and worry so we did not attempt to stop the game.
Some older folks had trouble with the obstacle course of arms, legs and mattresses in the semi-dark to climb the stairs to the rest rooms. Our supply of vessels was entirely inadequate. We had also started out with a great many heat-resistant paper cups for serving coffee thinking of the dish-washing problems but failed to caution users to save them for refilling. Many were thrown away after one use.
There was an occasional squeal from the little pig and finally one from the pig’s owner when, in trying to get the pig to take a bottle, the animal took a piece of her thumb instead. First aid was given.
Someone asked the time. I guessed midnight. All that we had seen and experienced since noon could not have happened in less than 12 hours. I was sure. It was 20 minutes to the hour. the storm gusts had been gradually increasing in intensity; this we judged by the sound of the wind-driven rain on the windows. For the length of each gust it was as if a monstrous living creature with fingers of steel were clawing frantically around each window pane seeking entrance, drawing back for a breath and renewing at the attack with ever-increasing vigor. Yet the weather bureau assured us that the hurricane center was still 200 miles to the southwest of us.
Around midnight we heard a rushing, roaring tumult of sound. By those close to the noise it was described as “four freight trains coming straight at you with a high scream like a panther’s cry.”
The shriek lasted only long enough for a startled, “What was that?” We learned the answer when the first casualty arrived half an hour later. Some 200 refugees had been sheltered in the school gymnasium. With a terrifying blast the glass doors of the building blew open, shattering the wooden frames and scattering glass over sleeping children. This shelter was under the supervision of a young Navy veteran. Although by far the most seriously injured, suffering a deep laceration of the right arm on which he placed a tourniquet, he gave first aid to all the others who had been cut or shocked and moved everyone into the dry locker room before seeking help for his own wound. Due to his calm and efficiency, there was no panic.
His arm was still bleeding profusely when he reached us. Before consenting to stay he had to be assured that adequate help would be sent to take care of the other injured. We could not take him to the hospital because by this time both highways leading from the town were closed, as reported by the state highway patrol. Their radio-equipped cars were now the only contact with the outside world. We had no physician on duty in our shelter, so we sent immediately for help. The county public health doctor and nurse soon arrived and remained on duty until the emergency was over.
New casualties began to arrive. We learned that we had been struck by a tornado within the hurricane. Leveling everything in its path, the twister cut a swath 200 yards wide through a residential district. Houses collapsed before the occupants had any warning, pinning many beneath the wreckage. By the time we learned of the disaster and sent men to help survivors were on the verge of panic – four children could not be found.
From midnight to daylight searching parties were out looking for injured. They found one woman lying with a heavy beam across her chest. She was in shock and suffering from internal injuries and exposure, but kept repeating that her 10-year-old girl was lost. Several times her wrecked house was searched as well as darkness and gales would permit. But it was four hours after the tragedy before the girl and three other children were found. They were all seriously injured. The girl and one of the others died later.
One woman was found who had taken refuge with relatives. She was sitting in a rocking chair nursing a four-month-old infant. She was treated for lacerations of the face and the baby for a broken leg.
In charge of rescue work was an army officer home on leave. He and a local dentist had set up shelter in the Negro school building and gave first aid to innumerable injured. There was near panic when a rumor spread through the crowded building that another storm was right behind this one. Telling us later, the officer said one woman caught hold of his arm, holding it in a vise-like grip which she would not loose. If he freed one hand, she grabbed more claw-like with the other. He searched the crowd for the biggest, strongest looking of the men and called him over. Shifting the clinging, hysterical woman to him, the officer continued his work.
Asked how he prevented panic from spreading he said, “I told them over and over, pray, pray to the Lord.” They could understand that and it helped.
In the meantime, there were more emergencies inside our shelter. Someone in the main room cried, “Come quick, nurse, somebody fainted.” We had joked about who would be midwife for the possible labor case, but when I saw it was she, lying unconscious in the center of the room and realized both highways were closed, it was no longer a joke. Ammonia inhalation brought a return of consciousness and when she was able, she was moved to a cooler, more secluded spot.
Another newborn we had was going fine. Put to breast shortly after arrival, he was still pulling some hours later. I asked, “Is he there again or yet?” “He ain’t getting’ nothing,” the mother said, “but he won’t turn loose.” Sometime later a worker hunted up a baby bottle and wanted a formula fixed for him, he was still hungry. In the absence of water I melted ice to boil the bottle and nipples and mixed canned milk and boiled water in what I hoped were correct proportions. I had no sweetening. I told him, “Young man, I hope you’ll like it straight.” He did.
During the night the small children were restless. We found that many of them had been given coffee, orange marmalade and cake by the mothers and some had become sick. The father of one of the families of four children was of the greatest help to us. All afternoon he helped wash dishes and now he mopped floors, cleaned toilets and did many other chores entirely unasked. About every two hours he would take a flashlight and go through the big hall seeing that those who needed rest were given a place to sleep. He had lost his home by fire some months before and had been helped by the local Red Cross, so we felt his work was inspired partially by gratitude.
A few refugee women asked if they could be given something to do because they, “couldn’t stand to be just a-setting around,” but most of them “just set.”
At dawn the highway patrol reported the road to Port St. Joe and the hospital was now clear of water and passable. Ambulances and cars were assembled to take the most severely injured to the hospital. I remembered the obstetrical case and checked on her. She was sitting up in a chair, still with a backache, and her husband was sleeping soundly on her mattress. She was in no immediate need.
There were light moments even in the midst of tragedy. One woman whose house had collapsed was only slightly injured suffering from bruises and shock. When offered a cup of coffee (possibly only because the county nurse had donated a gallon bottle of distilled water) she asked, “Is there some toast to go with it?” She looked around the room, “Whar does you spit, when ye takes yer snuff?” Then she asked us to supply the snuff. We had fun asking all the volunteers for it. Some of the refugees were well supplied, which disclosed another oversight on our part. No spittoons.
Offered a bowl of noodle soup, homemade and thick with meat and vegetables, she refused, saying noodles always gave her indigestion. The workers suggested she eat around the noodles but that suggestion met with disapproval. In desperation the worker offered up a can of vegetable soup. “That’ll do,” she said, “if you’re shore it ain’t greasy.”
With daylight the lights came back on, the linemen running a special emergency line just for our use. Then we had water. Soon the good smell of brewing coffee spread through the building. It brought us to the kitchen, workers and refugees alike – pinning up straggling locks, pulling at rumpled clothes, stretching cramped muscles, some from sleep but ours from sheer fatigue. The storm winds were lessening and the long night was over.