Hurricanes: Occurrence and Survival for Our Northwest Florida Ancestors

I will assume most of you already know we are into hurricane season. Every year, most of us check our batteries, flashlights and canned goods just in case we have the big red “X” on our backs this year. But have you ever given any thought to how our ancestors anticipated beforehand and coped during and after a hurricane? My ancestors were in the panhandle from about 1821 on, so I figure they got some pretty good experience with preparing for, living through, and recovering from a hurricane. Let’s take a look at the hurricane experiences of Northwest Florida from 1837 to 1949.

Most of us have lived our entire lives with reasonably accurate hurricane forecasting, FEMA and relatively effective local and national responses after a hurricane. Sometimes we know days in advance that the storm is heading our way. If we are inclined toward at least basic preparedness we make a last minute review of supplies and maybe make a trip to the store for something we need. Why bother though? When there will be food and water afterwards thanks to the State or the County or the Feds? One good reason to bother is that may not always be there or can’t get to you quickly. And then you will not be able to care for your family or any neighbors who might need help. There is a reason the airlines always tell parents to put the mask on themselves first, then their children. To put it gently, if you don’t, you become part of the problem, not the solution.

We do know that the panhandle was hit by a number of hurricanes during the very early years of Spanish settlement in Pensacola. In 1559 the new Spanish colony of Pensacola was devastated by a hurricane to the point that the Spanish thought better of settlement by 1561. But records don’t get reliable until after Florida became a territory of the United States in 1821. One of the best sources of information on Florida hurricanes is found in a book by the same name by Jay Barnes. The following table was extracted from the narrative on early hurricanes.

Date Locations Impacted Severity
7 Aug 1837 St Mark’s
30 Aug 1837 Apalachicola Severe
Oct 1837 First hit Mexican coast in the Gulf, turned northern & hit Brownsville & Galveston, veered east and passed over New Orleans & Mobile and north of Pensacola.  Crossed the southeastern states and exited into the Atlantic near Charleston.  Moved north & destroyed the paddle-wheel Home, killing 90 Severe
September 1841 St. Joseph Severe
22 Sept 1842 Pensacola Moderate
5 Oct 1842 Lighthouse at East Pass lost 30 feet of height, Apalachicola, St. Mark’s, Tallahassee Severe
13 Sept 1843 Port Leon on the banks of the St Mark’s River Severe
September 1844 Apalachicola Moderate
23 Aug 1850 Apalachicola Moderate
August 1851 Apalachicola, Tallahassee, St. Mark’s Severe
24 Aug 1852 Pascagoula, Mobile but effects of winds and water were felt in Pensacola.  Pensacola got more than 13 inches of rain from the 23rd to the 26th Severe
9 Oct 1852 east of Apalachicola, St. Mark’s & Newport Moderate
30 Aug 1856 Cape San Blas, near Panama City, Apalachicola, Marianna Severe
11 Aug, 14 Sept & Oct 1860 All three hit Louisiana, Mississippi & Alabama but Pensacola received high winds & rain Moderate
July 1870 Mobile & Pensacola Moderate
3 Oct 1877 Cape San Blas, St. Mark’s Moderate
20-31 Aug 1880 Apalachicola & Pensacola Moderate
9-10 Sept 1882 Pensacola Moderate
21 Jun 1886 Apalachicola, Tallahassee Moderate
 8 Oct 1894 Apalachicola, but every place between Pensacola and Jacksonville received some damage Moderate-Severe
7 July 1896 east of Pensacola Severe
2 Aug 1898 between the Apalachicola and Choctawhatchee Rivers.  St. Andrews Bay reported 18.29 inches of rain during the week of the storm Severe
11-14 Sept 1903 near Apalachicola Category 1
September 27, 1906 near the Alabama & Mississippi border but did severe damage in Pensacola (see photos) Severe
September 4, 1915 Apalachicola Minor
October 18, 1916 Pensacola Category 3
September 28-29, 1917 Pensacola east to Panama City Category 2
Setember 15, 1924 Port St. Joe Category 1
September 18-21, 1926 Crossed the Gulf and had a second landfall along the Alabama/Florida border (see photo) Massive
September 28-30, 1929 near Panama City Moderate
July 31, 1936 Pensacola, Ft. Walton Beach, Valparaiso Category 3

A couple of things jump out at me when looking through the listing. The area around Apalachicola was a difficult place to live in the 19th century, and the area around Pensacola was a good runner-up. In reality, if the storm was very big it covered all of the area between them.  Our ancestors were tough if they settled here early and stuck it out. If hurricanes didn’t get you, the epidemics, Indians or critters might. Until 1870, people were truly on their own when it came to hurricanes. There was no forecasting, little ability to track and monitor (reports from ships might indicate a potential problem but no way to know where it was headed) and no ability to spread the word that bad weather was heading their way. It would be a matter of their experience telling them one morning that the air felt different or was coming from an unusual direction, the wind was gusty, the air smelled saltier, the sky to the south was darkening and clouds were what my grandmother used to call “angry”. If things deteriorated through the day, by mid-afternoon they might decide they needed to take care of a few things around the farm then settle in to ride out whatever was coming. Or if they were busy, they might not realize the impending weather until there was little time left. Regardless, you would gather everyone in the house and hope and pray.

After 1870, when President Grant signed a proclamation giving the Signal Corps responsibility for forecasting and warning of hurricanes, things got a bit better in the larger towns (which weren’t abundant in 1870 in the panhandle) but any of our ancestors who were in the backcountry were still pretty much on their own. By 1900, the forecasting was getting a better and the warnings were improving. While most of the storms that hit the panhandle were relatively less severe than many had been in the 19th century, there were a couple of category 3 storms and one massive storm in September 1906. Pensacola was on the “dirty” side of the 1906 hurricane and took a severe beating. In 1926, the Great Miami Hurricane that devastated south Florida, crossed the peninsular, entered the Gulf and had a second landfall along the Alabama/Florida border. From what I can gather, the storm had thankfully lost some of its strength as it traveled the Gulf waters but still did damage in and around Pensacola.




Honing your senses to read weather patterns would have been a valuable survival skill that most of us have no clue about these days. Since moving to the country, I’ve learned to pay attention to the sky.  But I would not put my current skills up against a hurricane. I have a weather alert system for back-up; though I have to admit when it goes off in the middle of the night, I sometimes want to stomp on it.

The other thing about hurricanes is you can find yourself isolated for a while after they pass. Roads have debris on them, water flooding them or both. That wonderful thing called electricity on-demand is generally not responding. Water may not be safe to drink without boiling it or it might not be available at all. If we think about our ancestors in this regard, we can imagine the following: 1) They came out of their houses, or what was left of them; sized up the damage and got to work. No one was going to come in and give them money to rebuild.  2) They were farmers and preserved foods by canning, salting and root cellar. That was ongoing. Food did not go to waste because you never knew when a disruption would occur. Even if it didn’t look too good, if it was eatable they did something with it to fill the hunger spot. Prepping, as it is called these days, was part of life not an extra activity. But hurricanes could destroy the coming years crops and mean what you had to eat was what you already had put up that didn’t get destroyed.  3) They checked the well and cranked up some water for cleaning and drinking.  4) Cooking was already by fire in the fireplace kitchen so they might be constrained by the wood they had protected from rain and flood before the storm and set some additional logs to dry.  5) They checked on their extended family and neighbors and shared if they could and helped where it was needed.

Someone asked me once why hurricanes don’t scare me. They were from California so I figured I could ask them why they weren’t afraid of earthquakes, but I didn’t. I explained that as bad weather goes, hurricanes and tropical storms get a lot of coverage and the forecasts are pretty good unless you are ignorant of how to understand them. I’ve been through quite a few, the advantage of many decades on the Atlantic or Gulf Coast. Donna in 1960, Cleo in August 1964, Dora in September 1964, Gladys in October 1968, Eloise in September 1975, David in September 1979, Alicia in 1983, Chantal and Jerry in 1989, TS Frances in 1998, TS Allison in 2001, and Ivan in 2004. I think I might have a PhD in hurricane survival though I’ve not been through anything more than a category 3 and a couple of tropical storms with enough water to float a battleship. Still, I’m always pleased when another year passes without one visiting.

Which brings me to the weather we’ve experienced on the Gulf Coast so far this summer. The ground is saturated and the rivers are high.  If we get a hurricane or another tropical storm this year, after or in the middle of all of this rain, we will all need snorkel and fins. So, might I suggest that even if you aren’t one to stock up on batteries, flashlights, lanterns, canned food and bottled water; this might be a good year to do that. Put yourself in your ancestors’ shoes. What can you do right now to be better prepared for any more bad weather this year? If it doesn’t come, that’s great. Nothing you’ve done can’t be carried over to next year or used this year. Put stuff in place now and then get on with life. I was raised to be prepared for an “oops” event.  Less stress.  Which is good because I’m not crazy about shopping for groceries, especially when everyone is acting frantically.

May we all have a quieter rest of the year. Until next time.


  • Florida Hurricanes by Jay Barnes

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