NAPLES — Wind whipped, trees cracked and the water rose.
Hurricane Donna blasted Naples on Sept. 10, 1960, and the Category 4 storm has been called one of the worst storms to ever hit Naples. Old-timers have said Collier County hasn’t seen a storm like it since.
But Donna helped set changes in motion.
While the storm caused significant damage throughout Southwest Florida, 50 years later longtime residents said it contributed to the community’s growth over the past five decades. Here are the memories of some:
■ ■ ■ Joe Williams ■ ■ ■
The walls shook like paper and the windows blew in, but the Rev. Joe Williams’ prayers were answered: River Park apartments didn’t fall down.
“We were on the second floor, upstairs,” remembered Williams, pastor of Triumph Church in River Park. “Apartment A10. The roof stayed on, but all the windows blew out. I was afraid. I was afraid. So afraid.”
Williams was 23 years old when Donna hit. He’d never ride out a storm like Donna at home again, Williams said. Now, he goes to a shelter.
When the eye came through, they looked outside and all seemed calm. But they knew what was coming, so they abandoned their second-floor apartment and rode out the second half of the storm in a neighbor’s downstairs apartment.
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“We had to put sofas up against the front door, with about five or six men sitting on the sofa to keep from blowing the door open,” he said.
About half the people who lived in the apartments stayed, while the other half went to the bowling alley at Pine Ridge Road and U.S. 41 N. for shelter.
At the time, Triumph church met in a small, wooden hut in McDonald’s Quarters, a neighborhood of shacks in River Park. Miraculously, the church survived.
“After, I looked to see what it had done and what had blown down, and nothing happened to the little huts in McDonald Quarters,” he said. “There were a lot of windows out and a couple of trees down, but it did the most damage over there on the beach.”
■ ■ ■ David Pfaff ■ ■ ■
David Pfaff never considered leaving. He had family and friends here, and had just built a new house in the Moorings, an upcoming community in the northern part of the city.
So rather than retreating, Pfaff, now 75, said he and his family hunkered down in their Bow Line Drive home and rode out the storm.
“I don’t remember a whole lot of anxiety of leaving in the face of the storm,” said Pfaff, a former news director at WNOG radio station.
“(Leaving) wasn’t really encouraged by the media and the authorities. I think people realized that it was going to be a severe storm, but the community was different and the people were different. There wasn’t as much mobility,” David Pfaff said.
“(Leaving) wasn’t really encouraged by the media and the authorities. I think people realized that it was going to be a severe storm, but the community was different and the people were different. There wasn’t as much mobility.”
But staying meant limited access to the news and the outside world _ the office Pfaff had worked in flooded during the storm and the radio station didn’t get back on the airwaves for days after Hurricane Donna.
That meant Pfaff, who weeks earlier left his job as a news director to join the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce, once again put on his newsman hat to spread the word that Naples residents were safe.
The phone lines were out, but Pfaff said a friend helped him find an open line that allowed him to call United Press International, a news wire service he occasionally worked for, and give a report about conditions in Collier County.
The storm may have done a lot of damage, but Pfaff said in some ways it was a blessing in disguise for the community as a whole.
“In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s the U.S. was in what was then called the Eisenhower recession,” he said. “The economics in Naples was pretty down, but the storm came through and immediately there was an infusion of $33 million in insurance claims.”
That money, he said, helped Naples bounce back and pave the way for what it is today.
■ ■ ■ Mary Watkins ■ ■ ■
The water and wind rushed into the dining room at the Naples Beach Hotel, and sucked the tables and chairs into the Gulf. Windows broke, palms snapped and water and sand rushed into rooms near the shore.
“The Beach Club is a shell,” Mary Watkins wrote in a letter to her mother after the storm. Watkins’ family still owns the hotel today. The hotel had been newly renovated for the season, but the storm left it with “no furniture in the dining rooms, lobby, bar, anywhere.”
“It’s pretty amazing, the force of nature,” Mary Watkins said. “You can do nothing about the wind or the water.”
The night before Donna arrived, Watkins and her family took refuge at a friend’s house. Her boys, ages 7 and 9, crowded onto her lap in fear and a friend’s daughter hid in the closet.
Through the night they listed to WNOG, Wonderful Naples on the Gulf, for constant updates. At 9 a.m. the electricity went off. Then at 11:30 a.m., the eye came, but it wasn’t over yet.
The second half of the storm was worse, Watkins remembered. Friends who had checked on their houses during the eye of the storm had found no damage, but when they returned later, their homes were devastated.
“It’s pretty amazing, the force of nature,” she said. “You can do nothing about the wind or the water.”
When the Watkins family returned to their home on 14th Avenue South after the storm, the house was intact, but the porch facing the Gulf had been torn off, lifted over the house and dropped on the driveway.
“But, we have frequently said that Donna was a blessing,” Watkins said. “As a result, insurance money was good to us and it put people back to work. You had to look at both sides of this crazy coin.”
■ ■ ■ Doris Reynolds ■ ■ ■
The letter tells it all.
Nineteen days after Hurricane Donna blew through Naples, Doris Reynolds, a Daily News contributor, wrote a letter to her friends and family detailing what her family and friends went through during the storm.
Reynolds, her family and a couple of friends rode out the storm at the Koni Kai, an apartment complex in Coquina Sands. The apartments were new to town; Reynolds in her letter said they were able to get a key to the building because they were friends of the owners.
“A hurricane is a frantic thing; filled with rain and revolving counter-clockwise around the eye (dead center and calm),” Reynolds wrote in her Sept. 29, 1960, letter to friends.
Reynolds said the roof on the Koni Kai began coming off, and the group packed their belongings and went to a lower floor. An hour or so later, she said in her letter, “water began coming in and we moved again to a northern apartment.
“Here we stayed ... the longest day of our lives,” she said.
Reynolds said recently that many of the belongings in her home, then located on 13th Avenue South, were destroyed, as was her office on Third Street South.
Fifty years later, Reynolds still vividly remembers those days leading up to, and following, Hurricane Donna, but said she tries to remember the positives – like the generosity that followed after the storm – instead of the hard times.
“It improved the community in many ways,” she said. “It was a small town then, (and) what was left behind was a real pioneering spirit.”
■ ■ ■ Sam Colding ■ ■ ■
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Sam Colding didn’t experience much damage at his home after Donna.
The electricity went out, but Colding said he was “born before electricity” and knew how to deal without it for the three weeks he was without it.
Colding wasn’t just worried about his home, north of Everglades City, in the days and weeks after Donna. Colding was Collier’s property appraiser at the time, and said there was some concern that government property located in Everglades City would be harmed because of the storm.
“The water came up around 5 feet in Everglades,” he said. “It came into the courthouse about a foot. It harmed stuff in there, but it didn’t destroy too much government property.”
The courthouse wasn’t the only place with flooding, though. Everglades City’s grocery store was located at sea level at the time, and Colding said everything was destroyed.
Everglades City was hit hard, and Colding, now 81, said he remembers hearing that “some of the houses floated off the foundations.”
“There was a lot of damage,” he said.
But even with all that damage it only took about a year for his community to bounce back after the storm.
■ ■ ■ Sue Smith ■ ■ ■
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Sue Smith didn’t stay.
The longtime Naples resident said she made the decision to leave Naples as Donna was barreling in because she had two small children at the time. That decision meant Smith and her mother-in-law left town before the worst of it.
“The sun was shining. It was a beautiful day,” Smith said of the day she left town. “Two days later (her mother-in-law’s) house was really quite injured as were the other houses in the Port Royal area.”
Smith may have missed the worst of the storm, but she was back in time to see the aftermath. Smith said her husband _ who owned an insurance agency at the time _ was flooded with calls from clients whose homes were destroyed.
“They had destruction and destruction,” she said.
Smith said her husband made a commitment to feed the hordes of insurance adjusters that descended on Naples after the storm. She said he would take them over to his parents’ home, feed them and let them swim in the pool after a long day at work.
It was like that everywhere, Smith said. Wealthy people were helping poorer people get back on their feet, and everyone was lending a hand where necessary.
“It was fascinating to me to see the camaraderie, the congeniality and the loving togetherness,” she said. “It was like a phoenix out of the ashes, everyone worked together in such a loving matter. That is a memory that is beautiful in my mind.”