The Donna Letters

            On September 10, 1960, Hurricane Donna slammed into Fort Myers Beach with winds estimated at 140 miles an hour. It is widely regarded as the most destructive storm in our state’s history – causing 15 deaths in Fort Myers.

            During the time of the storm Jane Hyatt Upsal’s mother, Kay Hyatt, lived in Fort Myers and owned a cottage at 5664 Estero Boulevard on Fort Myers Beach. The family had moved to Fort Myers from the Beach two years earlier because it was easier for the kids to catch the bus from there, but they returned to their cottage as much as possible. She wrote several letters to her mother-in-law, Leila, immediately after Donna had passed, detailing what she went through. The following story is taken directly from those letters and further interviews with Jane Upsal.

 

 

            On Saturday morning, September 10, 1960, Hurricane Donna was blowing her way up the west coast of Florida. Kay Hyatt and her family hurriedly taped up their windows at their house at 3407 West Riverside Drive in East Fort Myers, while worrying about their Beach home. There, they and a few of their neighbors from the island – the Taylor’s and the Green’s – battened down to ride out the storm. Kay was glad to have them around as they helped with household morale. Charlie Green was a hurricane veteran – having survived the ’26, ’35, and ’44 storms, and he kept the kids busy playing cards.

            At 11:05 am, the lights went out. Clare Taylor, the beach correspondent for the Ft. Myers News-Press, kept the transistor radio glued to her ear as the local radio stations went out at the same time and they had to get their news from Venice, then Sarasota, then West Palm Beach, as one by one those cities felt Donna’s wrath.

            When the eye went over them, it lasted for an hour and a half, during which Charlie built a fire in the fireplace and the families grilled steak and chicken, and made chili, frozen peas and coffee. By 6:30, the storm was over, and Kay went outside to see how the neighborhood looked.

            While several roofs had peeled off and a new subdivision – the Parade of Homes on Stadler Drive across from the Country Club had their roofs blown off left and right, it was mild compared to what she saw when she went to their cottage on Estero Island early the next morning.

            After making breakfast on their Sterno stove, the families headed to the Beach. The nervousness they felt as they approached increased when they had to wait for big trees to be cut away before continuing. When they crossed the drawbridge (which had been knocked around by Joe Ainsworth’s big boat) it wobbled so much that only one car was allowed to cross at a time – and then only proven property owners.

            As they headed south to their home, they saw sand drifted like snow across the road. Evelina Green’s house had sat soaking with four feet of water in the rooms, but since they had put their beds and clothing up, there was nothing left behind but silt. The family stopped on their journey and helped them hose it out, and Evie’s family came and helped Kay’s family scrub their house out.

            The first thing the family noticed when they arrived at their island cottage was that their oil tank and woodpile were nowhere to be seen. The stand for the oil tank remained, but the front wall of the carport was gone. Their birdbath was under sand, but still there. There was sand to the top riser of the second step. “We now have a million dollars worth of fill!” they joked. They kept all their food in a cooler with ice, but even the orange juice went sour by Tuesday.

            Kay and her son and daughter, Christopher and Jane Alison, spent the next few days cleaning up the ‘uninsured’ – salt water – damage. The insurance agent from Ft. Myers, Graydon Jones, said to get everything fixed and bring the bills in, but since there were so many people who couldn’t even live in their houses, they figured that the adjuster would be out on the beach long before that.

            On Tuesday morning, Kay took the boys – Christopher Hyatt and young Charlie Green Jr. (who would grow up to be the Lee County Clerk of Courts) across the state to Coconut Grove where their boarding school was located. The entire school – Ransom School – was out clearing dead fish and debris off their playing field. Their buildings were all intact and the Headmaster, Mr. Cameron, excused Christopher and Charlie from work detail since they had already worked enough at home.

            As Kay’s family worked to clean up the mess, they could see that their neighbors’ homes had borne the brunt of the storm. Elizabeth Richards, whose home was next to Sanders Boat Yard, had found her grand piano in the mangrove swamp just across from the Yard. Her house was gutted, and she was unable to locate the remainder of her furniture. Grace Eaton, who lived just south of the Hyatt’s, had lost everything, as had Helen Jennings – her house had been reduced to kindling wood. The Betterton cottage next to Boomer’s was down. All of Colonel Hutchins’ windows had been blown out. However, another neighbor’s home – that of Jane and Harold Alexander – had been left untouched. Ah, the ways of the hurricane, Kay thought. At least Jane and Harold would be happy.

            On Wednesday night, September 14, Kay Hyatt stood on the ruined front porch of her house – near where Sterling Avenue is today- looking out at the chaos that Hurricane Donna had left in her wake. In the dim light provided by her two remaining candles, she surveyed the damage left after several days of cleaning. Her home had faired better than most, she thought, as she headed inside to write a letter.

            She had been able to save the rugs that her mother-in-law had given her by cleaning them with sulfur water from a neighbor’s well. Her dishwasher survived because the motor was located above the high water line. The Frigidaire, as a sealed unit, would probably survive, but would need to be flushed with fresh water. Winner Quave, the local electrician, told her that it would also need a new relay. Mack, the local carpenter, secured the few loose shingles on the roof – they had the least roof damage of anyone around – and fixed the front door. The door on the other side of their house that faced the Gulf had pushed and pulled all during the hurricane but held until six of the jalousie windows on it broke and the water came in, jumbling all the stuff on the porch and jamming everything up in the doorway. But, she thought, as she headed back inside to write a letter to her mother-in-law, they had been lucky. The beds were all dry, all the upholstered furniture – with the exception of the sofa – had remained dry, and the floor, while buckled in places, still held.

            The news from the rest of Lee County was sparse. They knew that Cape Coral and Lehigh Acres had been badly damaged, but those cities refused to release any information. Bonita Beach only had three houses left standing and there were pieces from the trailer parks scattered everywhere, both in town and at the Beach.

            All over the Island, people bent to the task of cleaning up. Since they were all in the same boat, their spirits were wonderful and they worked like beavers. It was dreadfully hot, but that made the cold showers more bearable.

            By the following Friday, the lights came back on and everyone in the neighborhood rose up and cheered. All the people from Kay’s neighborhood at the beach had returned except the Hutchins.

            Kay reckoned that though she’d lost six pounds with all the hustling and bustling, the storm didn’t scare her nearly as much as the violent electrical storms she remembered from Illinois. It was the aftermath of no lights, no hot water, no telephone and no icebox that got her. “I’ll never take my icebox for granted again,” she thought.

            On Sunday, September 17th, just seven days after the storm, the News-Press put out a ‘Hurricane Souvenir Edition’, with all the pictures and stories from the area arranged together. While she thought it was rather morbid, Kay included it in letters she sent to family and friends. “I suppose,” she thought to herself, “that one day we’ll be telling our grandchildren about Donna.”

            Kay Hyatt passed away on September 14, 2006, 46 years after writing the letters on which this story is based. We at the Sand Paper respectfully thank her daughter for sharing her letters with us.

 

 Keri Hendry – originally published in the Island Sand Paper, Issue 363, January 25, 2008

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Published in: on May 31, 2008 at 6:01 am  Comments (4)  
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  1. I was 7 when Hurricane Donna struck. I lived in town at the time, and we took shelter at Ft Myers Junior High, across the street from our house. As a kid, we all thought it was great fun at the shelter, sort of like camping out with a big group. I still vividly recall doing puzzles while the plate glass jalousie windows clattered. We watched through the windows as the storm took out the brand new gym, not even 30 feet away. There was a great sense of camaraderie. Kids can be so naive and fearless.

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  2. Thanks for writing, Peggy!
    Mt mom was 19 when Donna hit, and she lived with her parents on Unity Street off Broadway. She told me she helped my grandfather nail the roof back on during the eye. That must have been some storm!

    Keri

  3. I was crossing the Atlantic on the SS Nieuw Amsterdam from England in Donna. Very slowly the ship would descend into a deep valley between mountains of water, then begin to climb again, and as the propellers came out of the water the whole ship shook and in a bit we seemed to be on top of a mountain. Then the slow descent began again and as the keel hit the water there would be a crash. I never made it into the dining room. They served bullion broth on deck each morning, and all I ate on the whole voyage was three bowls of that. To keep from being too sick I stayed on deck all of every day, and with bright sun and very high winds I was bright red by New York. I then went down to Miami to friends, and they had lost their house on Florida Keys.

  4. I was 11 years old, living on Calvin Blvd. in Fort Myers (15 miles inland), when Donna came to visit. At this time, the local banks gave out hurricane tracking maps, so my sisters and I were tracking the storm with radio broadcasts of Donna’s latitude and longitude positions, hoping we would get to be in the eye.

    We were oblivious to the potential danger of a direct hit from a category 4 hurricane. We watched the storm through our picture window that was only taped to prevent shattering.

    Finally, we got our wish. The calm eye of the storm came over Fort Myers. We walked outside, up and down the street with my father by our side. For a change of pace, when the wind resumed, it blew in the opposite direction.

    My mother is still living, and she recently told me this story: Since all power was out in Fort Myers…hence no communication…my grandparents in Indiana were hearing from the media that Fort Myers had been wiped off the map. (Typical media sensationalism.) For several hours, my grandparents believed we all had perished.


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