Florida has a long history of havoc-wreaking storms. However, most longtime Florida residents don’t start panicking until late August and September when the worst storms are most likely to hit. As changing climate conditions cause hurricanes to get larger and move more slowly, author Leslie K. Poole examines the relationships between Floridians and these massive storms.
Editor’s Note: This essay is part of the The Marjorie’s contributor series Lessons from the Marjories, where Florida women explore connections between the three Marjories and their own lives.
There is a game I play with friends in which I challenge them to name the “seasons” in Florida without using official calendar designations. It is always good fun. There’s Love Bug Season in May and September when cars may be blackened by amorous insects. Leaf Fall in February when the oaks seemingly drop their leaves overnight to make way for new growth. Everyone is familiar with Snowbird Season when roads and beaches are jammed with people fleeing cold climes, many proudly displaying what must be agonizing sunburns. Orange Blossom Season brings wafts of almost overpowering sweetness…and another irritant during the year-round Allergy Season.
And then there’s Hurricane Season.
Officially lasting from June 1 to November 30, it’s the time of year when television announcers repeatedly advise everyone to buy bottled water, canned food and batteries, leaving me suspiciously wondering if they have grocery store stockholdings. The nightly weather reporter eagerly sizes up storms crossing the Atlantic Ocean and the likelihood of them forming into something dangerous. I attentively watch as they depict swirling systems coded by number for wind strength.
The state has a long history of havoc-wreaking storms: the 1928 storm that killed more than two thousand people when it caused Lake Okeechobee to overflow (Zora Neale Hurston writes of this tragedy in “Their Eyes Were Watching God”); a 1935 Labor Day storm that killed highway workers in the Keys; and 1992’s Hurricane Andrew that tore through Homestead. However, most longtime Florida residents don’t start panicking until late August and September when the worst storms are most likely to hit. Changing climate conditions are making me more wary every year as hurricanes get larger and move more slowly, increasing their capacity for damage.
When I was a kid in Tampa, an approaching storm signaled that it was time to head to beaches along the Gulf of Mexico where usually calm, glassy waters sent up whitecaps and waves that were body-surfing worthy. We never evacuated our house, located two blocks from Tampa Bay, as my parents pooh-poohed any possibility that a storm would harm us. It was misplaced confidence, but it eliminated any innate fear of hurricanes. My mother spoke reverently about Hurricane Donna that crashed into the Florida Keys and South Florida in August 1960 before crossing the state. But that was something that happened in Miami, she let us know, as if somehow that simply couldn’t happen elsewhere.
Today we are blessed to have electronic gadgetry that charts potential storms long before they reach our coasts. State residents have plenty of time to stock up, buy ice and get the heck out of a storm’s path. But just imagine how old backwoods pioneers dealt with the storms that thundered ashore seemingly—and literally—out of the blue. And since I’m a fourth-generation Floridian, I’m talking about my people.
Two of Florida’s most beloved authors—Patrick D. Smith and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings—penned memorable descriptions of hurricanes, offering glimpses into what these rural folks endured.
In his novel, “A Land Remembered,” Smith wrote of how the edge of a storm blew up on an 1867 cattle drive party. Members watched as the sky blackened and winds rose. “Droves of small animals—foxes, rabbits, raccoons—were running together, enemies no longer, moving rapidly westward; and deer bounded across the land, leaping bushes as they rushed past the smaller animals and disappeared,” he wrote.
The humans found safety on a midden covered in dwarf cypress; it was just high enough to escape rising waters. “By now the rain was not rain but solid water, tons of wind-driven water that felt like a river rushing over them. It poured into their eyes and noses, almost suffocating them, causing them to gasp for breath and hold their hands against their faces in hope of relief.”
Rawlings, writing from her home in the north-central Florida village of Cross Creek, described hurricanes in three of my favorite pieces. The short story “Jacob’s Ladder” begins and ends with such storms, framing the hardships endured by Florry and Mart. “The yellow-grayness of the sky was tinged with green in the west,” Rawlings wrote. “The roar of the wind was a train thundering nearer and nearer.”
In “The Yearling,” published in 1938, Rawlings writes of the Baxter family in the years after the Civil War. They yearn for rain to help their meager farm in the sandy scrub. When rains finally come, the family is jubilant until Penny Baxter spots white “sea-birds” flying over—a bad omen. “Hit means bad weather, and when I say bad, I mean bad.” When his son, Jody, a storm-lover, wishes for a hurricane, Penny rebuffs him: “Don’t you wish sich as that. A hurricane flattens the crops and drowns the pore sailors and takes the oranges offen the trees. And down south, why, boy, hit tears down houses and cold-out kills people.” Sure enough, they endure several days of roaring storms accompanied by what Penny called a “toad-strangler of a rain.” The farm is left in tatters with the family gleaning what few vegetables survived.
“For my family, the final straw was not hurricane damage, but devastating freezes that killed their orange groves and spurred their relocation to Tampa.”
Locals in Cross Creek in the early 20th century didn’t have “First Alert Weather”—instead they employed their folk wisdom and were warned by a special train whistle that blew at a station four miles away, Rawlings wrote in “Cross Creek.” “Hurricanes are not a serious menace in the interior, but we get the fringes of the big coastal storms.” From the veranda of her wooden one-story farmhouse, Rawlings listened to the snarling wind and watched palm trees flattened to the ground. “The house sighs, but does not rock nor rattle. It has stood through too many storms to be disturbed by this one.”
Then, she noted, when September storms were past, “we have some of our most superb weather.”
Some of my kin lived in the Cross Creek area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I wonder if they could hear the train’s warning in time to batten down their homes before the onslaught of heavy winds and horizontal rain. Did they sit on their porches and watch in amazement or fear as black clouds roiled in their direction? For my family, the final straw was not hurricane damage, but devastating freezes that killed their orange groves and spurred their relocation to Tampa.
But that’s another season entirely.
Leslie Kemp Poole, PhD, is assistant professor of environmental studies at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. She is author of “Saving Florida: Women’s Fight for the Environment in the Twentieth Century” and former executive director of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society. Poole is an editor of the recently released book “The Wilder Heart of Florida: More Writers Inspired by Florida Nature.”
Photos from State Archives of Florida and Leslie K. Poole