Hurricane Donna over Florida on Sept. 10, 1960.
Hurricane Donna over Florida on Sept. 10, 1960.

The United States and the rest of the world were still in the thick of WWII in 1944. Headlines dominated every newspaper, radio, and TV newscast with updates about German forces, American advances, and Great Britain’s and France’s movements. Perhaps the last headline any reader would expect to read or hear would be that of a hurricane. In October of 1944 it was reported that the “hurricane quota [has been] filled for [the] year.” All of that changed on the 18th.

The 1944 Hurricane

The islanders of Sanibel and Captiva were at ease in that no hurricanes had hit the area for the past 18 years, and the predications were that none would. A small article in the Fort Myers News-Press mentioned “there’s still [a] chance of late disturbance slipping in,” and “keep your weather eye open.”

A few days later, a hurricane spun over Cuba. From there it headed toward the Caribbean, Yucatan Peninsula, and Havana before heading to the Gulf Coast. The headline for Wednesday, Oct. 18, read: “Storm Heads For Florida.”

Immediately, the Coast Guard warned islanders to head to “lighthouses and other designated refuges if it becomes necessary,” while the Red Cross cautioned residents to prepare for an evacuation. A large number of people vacated the area early and stayed at hotels in Fort Myers and further inland, causing overcrowding. Churches and schools had to be opened to accommodate the influx of people seeking shelter from the approaching storm, which packed 75 mph sustained winds, only to increase before making landfall again.

That afternoon and evening, the Hurricane of 1944 struck the area with great force. “It vented its fury,” reported the paper. The 75 mph winds were now clocked with gusts at 120, and trees were uprooted like weeds. Once the Lee County defense council ordered the electric cut off, and the storm knocked out the phone lines, those who remained on the islands had no communication with the mainland.

The Coast Guardsmen stationed at the Sanibel lighthouse monitored the shore for exceptionally high tides. They later detailed how “two Cuban fishing smacks anchored off Sanibel rowed to shore and took refuge.”

No word from Sanibel

The day after the storm, the paper ran updates concerning the damage and danger that was still eminent, even though the storm had dissipated. “No word from Sanibel Island,” reported the local paper. “It was assumed this resort island, as well as connecting Captiva had also been heavily damaged.”

As in past hurricanes, the Kinzie ferry service lost a barge and one launch. It would be several weeks before they were up and running. It left the numerous stranded island residents on the mainland to wonder how their property fared during the storm.

Tornado on Captiva

Prior to the hurricane making landfall, a Tornado ripped through Captiva Island. It came with no warning and destroyed Belton Johnson’s house. “There was an instant when I don’t know what happened,” recalled Johnson. “I remember the house shaking and the next thing I remember I was kicking dresser drawers and timber over me, to get out from under some stuff.”

In the house with Johnson at the time was his wife, Miriam, their daughter, Jeanette, and 80-year-old Hattie Gore. Jean Hayford, the Johnson’s neighbor, was an eyewitness to the tornado and destruction to the house. “A twister came across Buck Key,” she recounted after the storm. “Just took it [the house] right out.”

Gore sustained injuries from a flying milk bottle. “It hit her in the face,” according to Hayford, “and cut a bad gash right over her eye, and her arm was broken just below the shoulder.” Gore died the following year.

Hayford also mentioned that after the hurricane passed, mosquitoes became a problem; “they were just black swarms.” Elizabeth (Beals) Steyaart wrote that when she drove her car she had to “run the windshield wipers to see out, because the whole car was covered with mosquitoes.”

Capt. Oliver Smith Dies

Capt. Oliver B. Smith, who lived near the ‘Tween Waters Inn, was known locally as an experienced sailor. As the hurricane raged, Capt. Smith was knocked down and could not get back up. Steyaart and her father, a doctor, rushed to his side. “He had a pulse and he had a blood pressure,” according to Steyaart. She quickly got word to Max and Jean Hayford who came to the house, but by the time they arrived, Capt. Smith had died. He was the only reported death on the islands from the hurricane.

Max then “hunted up some lumber to make a casket for him. . . They got Captain Smith in, and they nailed the lid down.” He was buried in the Captiva cemetery shortly after the storm passed.

All was now quiet again on the small islands, until 1960.

Hurricane Donna Comes Through in 1960

Once again the islanders enjoyed years of calmness when it came to hurricanes, as there were none for 16 years. Although Hurricane Donna was known as a “dry hurricane” to those on Sanibel and Captiva, it did cause havoc for those evacuated. With the Kinzie ferryPath of Hurricane Donna service destroyed, they estimated it to be two weeks before they could transport vehicles to the islands.

Not A Record Storm

While the National Hurricane Center ranked Donna as “one of the all time great hurricanes,” closer to Lee County the newspaper reported the day after, “The ‘1960 Hurricane’ of Saturday set no records here for wind or rain but its course and long duration made it so ferocious that many old-timers termed it the worst they ever had been through.”

Donna packed winds at 92 miles per hour and gusts registering up to 121. Total rainfall was only 4.5 inches as the eye of the storm went dead center over Naples and turned into a Category 4 by the time it reached Fort Myers.

The hurricane was really something,” said Paul Everett, Jr., in a 1982 interview. “We were asked to evacuate, but none of the old-timers intended to leave.” Between both islands, 132 evacuated while 129 chose to batten down and ride out the storm.

Captiva residents, with the assistance of sheriff deputies and mosquito control, were escorted to the Sanibel airstrip during a hard rain. They were helicoptered off the island. It would be three weeks before electricity was restored and the roadways cleared.

Damage to the roads was caused by the tides that “crested four to six feet above normal,” according to the local paper. “Australian pines, insecurely anchored by wide-spreading but shallow roots, fell like tenpins across the main road that travels down the center of Sanibel and along the Captiva Gulf. Much of the Captiva road was impassable and parts of the Sanibel road were still blocked under sand drifts and tree falls.”

Upper Captiva Washed Away

Chesley “Chet” Perry was the general manager for the News-Press when Donna barreled through Southwest Florida. Due to the debris left behind, he had to deliver papers via plane to Boca Grande, and flew over Captiva to get a bird’s eye view.

The lower end of Upper Captiva Island north of Captiva Pass has been largely washed away by the hurricane,” he wrote. “A new entrance to Blind Pass was cut on the Gulf side only one-fourth mile from the Blind Pass Bridge. . . From the air it appeared that the South Seas Plantation on the northern tip of the Captiva Island withstood the storm well. But a couple of miles farther south the island took a beating.”

He went on to say that Sanibel fared much better than Captiva and mostly “roofing materials [were] blown off” numerous houses.

The residents of the islands would now get a 44-year reprieve from hurricanes until the most violent and destructive hurricane Charley wreaked its havoc in August 2004.


About the author

T.M. Jacobs, authorT.M. Jacobs is a member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Florida Historical Society, member of the Corporate Board of the Gulf CoastWriters Assoc. and president owner of Jacobs Writing Consultants in Fort Myers. A student of the American Revolution, he is the author of several historical works, including the recently published Almost Home: The 1864 Diary of Sergeant Samuel E. Grosvenor. The book is available at amazon.com and has been featured in both the Santiva Chronicle and on CSPAN2's Book TV.