460 years ago, a Spaniard named Tristan de Luna y Arellano sailed into Penscola bay to establish the first European settlement. A few weeks later, before they even had all the ships unloaded, Luna and his 1500 colonists discovered the hurricane. I can only imagine the shock and terror as these folks held on for dear life as their makeshift houses blew away. It got worse after the storm was over, because one of the ships was on the beach, two or three, I think, were left floating, but were all beat up. The rest were just plain gone and we are just now finding what’s left of them. Those sunken vessels contained the bulk of their food and other supplies.
Welcome to the Sunshine State, amigo.
60 years ago, next month, Tropical Storm Irene slammed into Pensacola with a vengeance. It was relatively mild, but we huddled around a monopoly board with a candle in a sterling candlestick as our only light. Mom, an old hand at hurricanes, used the game to keep little brother and me calm as the wind howled and our tiny wood-framed house shuddered. Dad was away, manning his company’s emergency radio network. Not much damage came of that storm, but I think it must have left an impression on us, because you’ve never met two brothers with more flashlights, lanterns and emergency gear! Back in ’59, the emergency gear was that candle.
As I said, Mom was an old hand at hurricanes. Grandma, a widow, married an immigrant farmer in Palm Beach County, Florida, where they had some vivid memories of recent ‘canes when they went to build the new house on his Lake Okechobee plantation. The Everglades soil is soft and mushy, so huge cypress pilings were driven straight through to the limestone bedrock. A very sturdy house was attached. It was a good plan, because the house is still standing.
Hurricanes of the ’20s didn’t have the dike around Lake Okechobee, so the lake tended to get loose and add to peoples’ trouble. The water came up and people climbed trees to escape. So did the snakes. Gators just kind of floated up with the water level. A hurricane in the Everglades in the old days just plain sucked.
Cap’n Andy’s house was the best deal around and was the headquarters for local hurricane parties. Of course, the power went out, but the lights stayed bright with a good array of candles and oil lamps. Canasta and Akvavit provided distraction.
The 1939 ‘cane went right over the house. While they were in the eye, Mom and two men from the party went up to the levee to look around. As the eye began to pass, the two men had to hold onto Mom as they quickly made their way back to the house in the rising winds.
Not far away, a boy named Fred, whom I met half a century later, noticed a storm brewing. His Dad had gone into Ft. Myers where he saw the storm warning flags and hurried home to get hunkered down for a REAL storm. No TV, internet or satellite tracking in those days, the storm was on them before they knew it.
Indoor plumbing on Fred’s block meant a pitcher pump at the kitchen sink, the well directly below the house. When the storm was over, every house on the block was sitting catty-cornered, having been blown off their foundation blocks and weather-vaned with the wind. After the storm, they blocked the houses back up, but still at the odd angle. They kept the lights on with oil lamps, too, but that could have turned into a disaster as the house fell to the ground.
Fast forward to the 1970s and Mom and Dad would just move into their little mini motorhome when the power went out. They were far enough inland that the wind wouldn’t blow it over. With lights and a fridge, they had all the comforts of home, sort of.
Bro and I worked at WCOA radio, the town’s oldest and premier station. It was built like a bunker and we had a diesel generator to keep on the air. And we had Eddie, a former Navy steward and chef, who could really put on a spread. That bunch knew how to put on a hurricane party, though I spent the night sacked out on a bag of shipping peanuts in the quiet fallout shelter, because I knew when the winds died down I’d be called upon to fix whatever was broken at WCOA and other stations around town.
Then there was Katrina. That was a bad storm, but the incompetence of local officials made it a lot worse. The storm actually hit Mississippi, but there was plenty to go around.
Rain Webb, an artist who lived on a modest sailboat in a marina near one of the old coastal forts just east of New Orleans, decided he was going to ride out the storm in his boat. It was his home, after all, and he didn’t want to lose it. I was on an adventure aboard my solar launch Sun King in 2015 when I met Rain and heard his story.
First off, a boat is kind of a little survival shelter in itself. It is waterproof and has power, a galley, a bathroom and a bunk. The only problem is that it is out in the water, which is where the hurricane is the strongest. If left in port, there is absolutely no doubt the vessel would have been smashed or hurled ashore. Rain’s plan was to gather all the anchors and all the line he could find and head for protected waters. There’s the very shallow Lake Catherine and the salt marshes of the Intracoastal Waterway. He found a wide spot and put lines and anchors out in several directions, hoping that a least one or two would hold.
Sailboats tend to roll or heel, with the heavy keel returning them upright. And that is exactly what the boat did until the winds died down. Rain came out of that boat looking and feeling like he had been through the spin cycle of a washing machine. When it was all over, he had power and water and food and a roof over his head. He gathered his lines and motored back to port. (Don’t try this at home)
People have been surviving storms for a long time in a lot of ways. These days electricity is a big part of surviving a storm in some comfort. Getting that electricity directly from a generator is not the best way, though. The crew at Sun Electronics can help you with that. Ask about their solar and backup power kits.