Ready or Not
Her name was Donna when she barreled into Florida’s west coast on Sept. 10, 1960. You may recall Hurricane Charley in 2004, Hurricane Wilma blasting ashore the following year. But long before these 21st-century storms came Category 4 Hurricane Donna, boasting her 92 mile-per-hour winds over Fort Myers and gusts to 150 mph. The National Hurricane Center still refers to Donna as “one of the all-time great hurricanes.”
It’s the time of year to again focus on hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website notes that 78 percent of tropical storm activity comes from mid-August to mid-October.
The absolute peak day of hurricane season is, ironically, Sept. 10, the date when Hurricane Donna came roaring and screaming into Fort Myers Beach, Bonita Springs, Fort Myers and the rest of the area. Gusts were reported as high as 168 miles per hour in Naples.
This epic storm inspired Ernie Stevens, then known as Fort Myers’s poet laureate, to pen the following, which was published in The News-Press on Sept. 12, 1960: "There was a young lady named Donna To meet her I’m sure you don’t wanna She came from the West Full of vigor and zest And ruined our flora and fauna.” Donna did more than send squirrels scampering or trees a-toppling. It was one of the most powerful hurricanes on record, the only one on its journey to produce hurricane-force winds in Florida, Mid-Atlantic states and into New England, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Donna’s statistics remain impressive: • Became a hurricane on Sept. 1 and remained one until Sept. 13. • Reached Category 4 status on Sept. 2. • Wind speeds in the Keys were clocked at 150 mph.
On that late summer Saturday in 1960, Lee County’s population was only 83,000―it’s now more than 700,000. A causeway to Sanibel had not yet been built. The interstate highway system had not yet reached Southwest Florida. Edison Mall, the region’s first such retail center, was not yet built. Donna in her journey killed 50, one trucker in Lee County, his truck dangling off the Edison Bridge an enduring image of Donna.
There wasn’t anything such as The Weather Channel or the internet 57 years ago. Concerned or frightened citizens couldn’t follow the storm’s minute-by-minute path as it headed toward their homes and businesses. All they could really do was batten down and pray. As The News-Press reported the day after the storm crashed ashore: “Bonita Beach yesterday was a scene of devastation as though a war had been fought along its length and breadth.” Fish were reported swimming in the streets of what is now called Everglades City but then was known simply as Everglade.
That was Donna, who came “from the West, full of vigor and zest.” Glenn Miller is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to TOTI Media.
Radar animation (above) in 1960 showed Donna's pathway. Charley ( right) 44 years later also pounded the Gulf Coast.