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Recalling Pinellas

Storm chaser's memories of tracking Hurricane Donna not fond

Former outdoors editor Red Marston experienced plenty of hurricanes over the years, some of them while living on his boat. He’s shown here working aboard the Final Edition in 1972. He died in 2008 at age 96.

Times (1972)

Former outdoors editor Red Marston experienced plenty of hurricanes over the years, some of them while living on his boat. He’s shown here working aboard the Final Edition in 1972. He died in 2008 at age 96.

As a St. Petersburg Times reporter from 1948 to 1965, Jerry Blizin covered some of Pinellas County's biggest stories.

Storm chasing by journalists was not yet fashionable in September 1960, when Times outdoors editor Gordon "Red" Marston and I were assigned to track the path of a big hurricane that forecasters believed was heading for Pinellas County.

Hurricane Donna, which became one of the most powerful storms in history, never got to Pinellas. It crossed the Florida Keys, then veered to the northeast, making landfall near Fort Myers before barreling up the spine of the state and then back out to sea. It was one of the scariest assignments in my two dozen years as a reporter.

Because Pinellas hadn't taken a direct hit from a hurricane since 1921, people here grew anxious when forecasters first predicted Donna was likely to strike here.

Marston, a descendant of New England seafarers and a veteran boater, had experienced plenty of hurricanes, some of them while living aboard his boat. He and his wife, Peggy, once went through three hurricanes in 46 days. But I was a police and city hall reporter from Minnesota who only knew bad weather as an unpleasant corollary to urban life. I was about to get quite an education.

• • •

We took off for the Keys on Sept. 9 in a rented, unairconditioned car. Our plan was to anticipate first landfall, which was expected somewhere in the middle of the Keys.

At a point near the top of the Keys where the Atlantic and the gulf were separated by only the roadway, Marston stopped the car to give me an introduction to the power of a hurricane. I got out gingerly, wearing a plastic raincoat, and stood barefoot in the water that was already crossing the road. The wind had not yet reached hurricane level, but I found myself leaning just to keep my balance. The raincoat shredded near the armholes.

A few hours later, we were there when Donna crossed the Keys near Marathon as a Category 4 hurricane, with winds of 140 mph. We had taken shelter at a sheriff's substation north of Vaca Key, where the deputy on duty let us spend the night in a holding cell. Don't worry about communicating with our newspaper, he assured us. The sheriff's radio system had a "hurricane-proof" transmission tower.

The night was filled with the noise of roaring wind and the banging of loose objects against the building. We didn't sleep well. At dawn, the hurricane had passed. Our car was intact, but the sheriff's "hurricane-proof" tower had collapsed. We headed out of the Keys to pursue the storm as it made its way north.

As Marston drove, I scanned our path for falling trees and flying coconuts. Several times fallen pine trees blocked our route. As we drove, Donna was leaving calling cards — huge swaths of mangroves and bird populations destroyed in the Everglades, 6 feet of water in the streets of Everglades City.

Frazzled, we eventually reached Fort Myers and checked into a motel, where I experienced the strange quiet that comes as the eye of a hurricane passes.

When I was finally able to file some copy, I began my Fort Myers story with this: "Oh, brother! This city looks as if all the lumberjacks in the Western Hemisphere arrived (here) for a convention and then went berserk." What happened, I added, should make other Suncoast cities join in a special offering of thanks for being spared.

At the height of the storm, the famed palm trees that lined Fort Myers' McGregor Boulevard were shredded, toppled or split. After the blow, we saw a semitrailer truck hanging from the Caloosahatchee River Bridge by one rear wheel as divers searched for the driver. At the Fort Myers airport, we saw a dozen small planes fused together after the side of the hangar blew out. Another plane was submerged in a creek across the road. True to its name, a warehouse labeled Sheet Metal Distribution had distributed sheet metal over a wide area. At Fort Myers Beach, mobile homes were bobbing in the surf.

Donna finally exited Florida near Daytona Beach on Sept. 11, but it was still a powerful storm. As it moved up the eastern seaboard, it hit the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Long Island and then New England before dying out in Canada on Sept. 14.

Donna was the fifth strongest storm to hit the United States up till that time. It took 364 lives, 50 of them in Florida.

Red Marston, who wrote more than 6,000 columns in 20 years at the Times, was hardy to the end. He was 96 when he died in South Pasadena in 2008.

Jerry Blizin, who lives in Tarpon Springs, can be reached at jbliz3@knology.net.

Storm chaser's memories of tracking Hurricane Donna not fond 09/06/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 6, 2011 5:30am]

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