Good Day to all! For two consecutive years now, our region has not gotten an early start to hurricane season with Tropical Storm Arlene forming June 2 in the Gulf. Hopefully, that portends a better year than last! Interestingly, it took off south and we didn’t get much rain. The Atlantic hurricane season began June 1, so, since it is upon us, this and the next are my annual hurricane columns.
Did you know that since 1830, Florida has experienced more than 200 tropical storms with over 100 classified as hurricanes? However, until 1953, when the United States began using female names, they were generally unnamed.
It seems an “average” season the past 30 years is 14 named storms, 7 of which become hurricanes, with 3 of them major, i.e., at least Category 3 with winds 111 miles per hour or higher. The 2023 predictions I’ve seen, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s (NOAA), Colorado State University’s, who’d have thought a university in Colorado would be a leader in predicting tropical storms, and The Weather Company’s, indicate near normal activity is expected. The NOAA sets that chance at 40%. I hope they’re correct, although “normal” is relative!
The medians of all three predictions are 15 named storms, with 7 hurricanes, 3 of them major. A slightly calmer prediction than last year due to the high potential for an El Nino to develop in the Pacific, which somehow can suppress Atlantic storms. NOAA has a 61% confidence level an El Nino will occur. Although we got hammered last year, 2022 was the first time in 3 years all 21 assigned names were not used. This year’s list began with Arlene, as we discovered June 2, ends with Whitney, and Franklin made it. Hopefully, we won’t get that far!
The earliest documented hurricane directly affecting this area occurred in September 1848, with landfall at Tampa. No deaths were reported, but Tampa lay in ruins and flooding occurred south to Charlotte Harbor. That same storm severely damaged Thomas P. Kennedy’s store on the harbor’s southeastern shore, eventually leading to the area’s “burnt store” designation.
The October 1876 hurricane’s effects were more severe and felt for several days. A resident of the area that would become Solana, just up the river from present day Punta Gorda, observing that all water was blown out of the harbor after days of high winds and heavy rain, commented that when the blow was over, there’d be plenty of mullet. This is also the storm that led 3 hunters with 13 alligators bagged at the “point” to seek shelter with the Lockhart’s, first permanent settlers of what became Punta Gorda. An historical marker near the large banyan tree on today’s West Retta Esplanade notes the approximate location of their cabin. The banyan tree was planted much later by Marian McAdow.
Around 1903, a 60-foot tower was constructed on the bayfront at the foot of Sullivan Street to display storm signals. Still in use when I was a youngster, I remember a green flag flying during calm weather, a single red triangular flag indicating small craft warnings, two triangular red flags signifying gale warnings, a single square red flag with a smaller black square for full gales, or tropical storms, and two of the red and black flags for hurricanes. The tower also displayed lighted signals at night. Small craft warnings were red over white; gale, white over red; full gale, or tropical storm, red over red, and hurricane, red over white over red.
A storm in 1910 was noted in the memoirs of Reverend George Gatewood, a circuit riding preacher who arrived in the late 1880’s. Initially based in Alva, just up the Caloosahatchee River from Fort Myers, he first moved to Punta Gorda in 1902. However, in 1907 he was bitten by the “homesteader bug” and for the next ten years lived near the intersection of today’s Bermont Road (SR 74) and State Road 31 in the community of Bermont. That storm was so severe, most of the large pine trees on high ground were toppled and the family sought shelter for the night in a strongly built feed storage shed near the barn when their house began to quiver. In the morning, fish were seen in the garden, swimming between rows of potato plants.
Visit Charlotte County’s website to view photographs showing the effects of several area hurricanes and the signal tower. Select “Community Services”, then “Libraries and History”. Click on “Physical Items”, then “Archive Search”. Enter the subject of your search on the “Search” line.
Photographs can also be viewed on the Punta Gorda History Center’s website. Select “Online Collection”, then “Keyword Search” and enter the search criteria.
Check out History Services’ yearlong project, “Telling Your Stories: History in the Parks”. It began in January 2021 with placement of the first interpretive sign “Charlotte Harbor Spa” at South County Regional Park. The last was dedicated December 15, 2021 at Centennial Park featuring Florida postcards. All dedicated signs can be viewed at online library resources. Select “Programs and Services”, then “History Services” and “Virtual Programs”. Visit the same site and select “History Exhibits”, or phone 941-629-7278, to find out what history related programs and videos are available.
“Did You Know” appears, typically, every other Wednesday, courtesy of this newspaper and the Charlotte County Historical Society. The Society’s mission is to help promote and preserve Charlotte County’s rich history. We are also always looking for volunteers and interested individuals to serve as board members. If you believe our area’s history is as important as we do, please visit Charlotte County Historical Center Society on-line, or call 941- 769-1270 for more information.
June 7 column