“Let’s put it this way, if we get a ’40s-style hurricane, people here will forget all about Frances, Jeanne and Wilma. Compared to the ’40s, those storms were like breezes.”
~Jay Barnes, author of the 1998 book, Florida’s Hurricane History as quoted in Palm Beach News Daily.
With all the talk of hurricanes this year, and people still shook up from Hurricane Irma, I asked my mother what year held the record as Stuart’s strongest storm along the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon.
I knew about historic hurricanes that hit the Treasure Coast in 1933, 1947, and 1949 but was unsure. My mother’s answer, without a doubt: “the Hurricane of August 26, 1949.”
During this time, storms were unnamed and of course there was not today’s technology or communications. The storm is recorded to have had Category 4 winds (130-156 mph) when it struck the Florida Coast near West Palm Beach. That put Stuart on the northeast side of the storm receiving the highest winds, and records show gusts much higher.
Mary Jones, the director of Stuart Heritage, has a primary source regarding this storm with some amazing numbers. The source is an envelope from the Garnett Rushing Early Collection. Mrs Rushing was from a pioneer family and this is what is written on the envelope as the hurricane tore through Stuart in 1949.
“Lost over Lake Okeechobee. Hurricane 1949. Grady Norton. Stuart Airport Barometer broke at 210 M.P.H. winds exceeded 230 M.P.H. Miami Weather Bureau reported the this hurricane went to sea over an unpopulated area between West Palm Beach and Ft Pierce.”
Grady Norton, was the “first director” of the National Hurricane Center. It is believed he wrote the notes on the envelope or perhaps they were notes taken by the Rushing family while he broadcast? In any case, the numbers are literally “off the chart,” (gusts at 201/230MPH!!!) and at that time it is almost amusing to note that Stuart was referred to as “an unpopulated area between West Palm Beach and Ft Pierce.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grady_Norton)
Well, Stuart is not an “unpopulated” area today, and as historian hurricane author James Barnes notes: ” If we get another 40s style hurricane, people will forget about Frances, Jeane, Wilma (and certainly he would add Irma’s visit to Stuart) –compared to the 1940s, those storms were just breezes.”
This photo is on page 23 of my mother’s book Historic Jensen and Eden on Florida’s Indian River. The insert reads:
“This photograph of the Seymour Gideon property was made after 1948 when Arthur Ruhnke started taking photographs locally, and before the August 26th 1949 hurricane that destroyed the fish houses. A trail leads to the ridge called “Mt. Washington” (Killer Hill, Skyline Drive today) by the pioneers. The watery expanses of the Jensen Savannas are in the distance. Notice the clear water and the abundance of river grass.” (Thurlow/Ruhnke Collection)
It is a beautiful photograph….isn’t it? Certainly after the Hurricane of ’49 hit the seagrasses of Jensen in the Indian River Lagoon were impacted too!
~Wind gusts reached 160 mph (260 km/h) at Stuart.
~Stuart (Jensen) experienced the most severe damage from the storm in south Florida; hundreds of homes, apartment buildings, stores, and warehouse buildings lost roofs and windows. Interior furnishings were blown through broken glass into the streets.
When hurricanes Frances and Jeanne hit within three weeks apart in 2004, entering both times at my hometown of Sewall’s Point, there was reported loss not only of property, but also of seagrasses in the Indian River Lagoon. Seagrass is very slow to recover…
As some locations of the grasses were experiencing recovery, they died back again due to the extreme discharges and toxic algae blooms in 2013 and 2016 ~linked to Lake Okeechobee, and canals C-44, as well as C-23, C-24 and C-25.
The South Florida Water Management District reports periodically on not overall numbers but rather “patch dynamics” at certain locations of the lagoon. (For Martin County: Boy Scout Island and Willoughby Creek.) I feel this is limited. The best way to see seagrass bed coverage is from the air. I am hoping in the future there will be money in the budget or the District could coordinate with local pilot for aerial seagrass surveys. Another way to approach this is though Google Earth mapping/aerials, and my brother Todd Thurlow and Mark Perry of Florida Oceanographic are working on this now.
Hurricanes, discharges, fertilizer from our yards…Seagrasses are as important as property as they are the nurseries of the oceans and keep the lagoon “living.” Look at the aerials below to see the losses, so that we may be inspired to work for and better document a recovery.
The “tides of change” are coming to Martin County. In some places they are already here. As a member of the Florida League of Cites, over the past years I have met officials from counties south of ours in Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe who have formal and open departments within their governments to plan for and deal with sea level rise or “nuisance flooding.” It doesn’t matter what you call it, or what caused it, when it’s happening in your city. You just want it gone…
We in Martin County, we talk about rising tides, but not really. It is something for those people “down there….”
I think we need to bring the conversation up here.
I live in Sewall’s Point, a peninsula in Martin County, surrounded by the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon. I have lived here since 1974. After graduating from college I left but did return years later to the beautiful peninsula to marry and buy a house with my husband in 2005. Ed, my husband, lived on South Sewall’s Point Road prior to our marriage, my parents still live here, as does my sister, so I have witnessed and heard about many water/weather events over the years in our fair town.
I have noticed that since Superstorm Sandy in 2012, even though she did not hit here, the waters in my area of Sewall’s Point seem to be consistently higher. Yes super moons, full moons, high tides, rains certainly have a lot to do with these events, but do they have everything to do with it? Certain hurricanes are documented to cause changes to flooding etc indefinitely—as out in the ocean things have shifted. We may not see the shift, but things have changed and it affects us on land…(http://www.livescience.com/24380-hurricane-sandy-status-data.html)
I don’t know, I am just speculating as I see a changes. It’s hard not to wonder when you see see water on the street almost every day…For the past four years our street has flooded consistently for long periods of time. Even with an outfall fixed there are issues. This time our road has been under various levels of water on and off for a couple of months, before the rain event as well. I have been documenting this in photos and emails for our town and for my neighbors.
The first photo in this blog is flood water from a rain event. The rest is river water. Yes river water that has come up through the grates and up through the ground into our neighborhood.
At first I was driving through the water when it was low…then my husband made me hose off the bottom of my car. Not fun. Since then I have gone one block over to Pineapple….So every day I drive one block over to exit my street.
The past couple of days it seems the water is receding, but if you look closely, you can still see it “high” right under the grate. Vegetation in the area will be and is already dying from the salt water. What will happen to the road?
Yes we that live here know where the flood zones are and cannot feign ignorance, nonetheless, this cannot be ignored..My advice? We must start a conversation with the Department of Environmental Protection and all local governments. We must face reality because she is knocking, right at our front door!
This is an excellent article from the Florida Keys shared with me on the subject:
Flooding advice: Learn to cope
BY Charlotte Twine Free Press Staff
KEY LARGO — Residents of Twin Lakes, withstanding 14 days of floods as of press time, have a nickname for their bayside neighborhood, according to Narelle Prew, who has lived on Adams Drive for 20 years.
“We call it Little Venice. On the street, it becomes a canal,” she said.
Twin Lakes isn’t the only Key Largo neighborhood that is currently flooded during the recent spate of higher-than-normal tides.
Emilie Stewart lives on North Blackwell Lane in Stillwright Point. “The water came 7 feet into my driveway. And Sexton Way and Stillwright Way are both totally under, and Center Lane,” she said.
On the 13th day of flooding, Emilie Stewart posted on Facebook a photo of her street completely underwater with the words, “The flood waters are rising!!!! Cannot believe this!”
Some residents are making their frustration public. Frank Garces, who lives in the Twin Lakes neighborhood and bought his house in May, has created a Facebook page called Key Largo Community Swamp.
In the “About” section, it says, “This page is to promote awareness about the long-time, ongoing flooding problem on Shaw Drive, Crane St. and Adams Drive.” Garces has posted many photos showing the conditions he and his neighbors have been living in.
“At the worst, it was over 15 inches,” Garces told the Free Press. “The water is finally starting to recede. I still have to drive through 5 inches of water. It floods when it rains, but that doesn’t concern me — it goes away in two days. This saltwater issue is more of a problem. It turns our street into a canal.”
In Twin Lakes and Stillwright Point, garbage and mail service has been continuous. But residents worry particularly about the damage that the saltwater is doing to their cars.
“People in my neighborhood are driving through the water, and I’m saying, ‘Oh my God,’” Stewart said. “I’m choosing to keep my cars parked. I walk to Winn-Dixie with a backpack for necessities.”
But for people who have to drive to work, the matter is more complicated than simply footing it to the local store. Garces and his wife, Stephanie Russo, have no choice but to drive through the saltwater in front of their home.
“I’ve got a big Ram diesel truck that can do it,” Garces said. “My wife has a two-door coupe that can’t do it. We rented her a truck from Enterprise to use to drive through the water.”
But driving your car through saltwater, which makes most mechanics cringe at the thought, isn’t the only problem from the flooding.
“The mosquitoes are out of control,” said Garces. “The wake from UPS trucks knocks over garbage cans, and garbage floats down the street. I don’t pay taxes to drive my car through canals and put up with stink and mosquitoes and garbage. That’s not right.”
“Our whole neighborhood is actually sinking, we were built on a marsh,” she said. “It shouldn’t have been allowed to be built the way it was. The county approved the neighborhood to be built, and the county should maintain it.”
The Free Press asked Monroe County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy to respond to Prew’s comments.
“This is true, it’s an old neighborhood. Yes, we did,” said Murphy, referring to the fact that the county approved the neighborhood. “At least one of the roads in there is a private road, the rest are county.”
Murphy, however, said solutions to the problem are limited.
“We’re surrounded by saltwater. Saltwater is what’s coming up in the street. There is nowhere for the saltwater to go, which is why it’s on the streets,” she said. “The county is not going to pump out the saltwater because there is nowhere to pump it to.”
Taking the high road
But residents question whether the county could raise the roads to prevent the flooding.
“The concern here is that the roads are low,” Garces said.
“Raising the roads would costs millions and millions of dollars,” Murphy said. “And to raise the road blocks water. Where would the water go? The water has to go somewhere, and that’s for the engineers to figure out. Just because you block it doesn’t mean it’s going to sit in the bay. It’s going to come on the land somewhere. And then those people are jeopardized.”
Judith Clarke, engineering director for Monroe County, said permitting and environmental changes present challenges.
“Unfortunately, potential physical modifications that may be made are not simple,” she told the Free Press. “Street grates allow water to drain by gravity, but with sea level rise, the water elevation is above the road and water comes up through some structures rather than draining into them.
“Construction on roads that are directly adjacent to the open water is subject to permitting through South Florida Water Management District and, depending on the proposed course of action, potentially the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”
For now, the county appears to be in studying mode.
“The county has embarked on the climate change adaptation study to develop a strategy to address climate change impacts in the county, a part of which is developing a strategy and criteria to adapt county roadways,” Clarke said.
Not a simple process
Rhonda Haag, sustainability director for Monroe County, said the county has been conducting modeling of several areas of the county for the past 18 months to determine what can be expected for saltwater inundation into neighborhoods, to identify potential road segments at risk of sea level rise, and to review the various infrastructure of the county and utilities. This effort is wrapping up in the next two months.
“It does not address how to address the flooding issues, only what are the flooding issues,” she said. “When this information is presented to our commissioners, there will be recommendations for how to proceed for the next steps. It is not a simple process.”
So why is the water lingering so long in these neighborhoods — 14 days as of press time?
“This was an event where the moon, autumnal equinox and weather all converged at one time to create an extremely high tide,” Haag said. “It’s not often the autumnal equinox falls at the same time as a full moon, but this year it did. The moon was also at its perigee, or the closest point to the Earth for the year. Experts were anticipating a somewhat higher tide due to these conditions. However, the storms and hurricane last week also contributed to the issue by driving strong westerly winds into Key Largo, thereby stacking up the water. Instead of the tidal waters receding with the tide, the westerly winds kept pushing the water in. Therefore, when the next high tide arrived, it stacked on the existing water that hadn’t fully receded.”
But some residents of the impacted neighborhoods say flooding there has been getting worse, rare confluence of circumstances or not.
“This time is probably the worst we’ve ever seen it. I don’t recall having this problem 20 years ago. I notice it more now. The last 10 years have been bad,” Prew said.
Haag didn’t dispute that perception.
“The general level of the sea is rising, so this will contribute to more tidal flooding, called ‘nuisance flooding,’ in the future,” said Haag, who added that Key Largo residents have been calling her to complain about flooding.
Clarke said county staff has received calls about flooding from residents in all parts of the county.
On the radar
Island of Key Largo Federation of Homeowners Association President Dottie Moses, who lives in the bayside Sunset Waterways neighborhood, said the concerns about flooding are on her group’s radar. She said the federation is also in a fact-finding phase.
“In the county there is an effort to raise the 35-foot height limit of homes in order to raise the base flood elevation of homes. We are still exploring the situation,” she said. “Traditionally, the federation is against raising the height limit. With the sea level rise, it has become a bigger discussion.
“I haven’t had the chance to ask homeowners how things are going since this incident. I know how things are going on Facebook and in my immediate neighborhood. We’ll be having a general membership meeting [Wednesday, Oct. 14], and I’ll ask how things are going.”
Garces just wants a solution.
“In no way, shape or form, I’m not slamming anyone in particular,” he said. “Rhonda met with us — she drove her car through saltwater to meet with my wife at our house. Judith called my wife. I just want them to come up with a solution for us.”
And, as he noted on day 14, “Water is getting deeper again today.”
For now, Haag recommended that residents help the county’s research.
“Please take photos of the high tidal waters, and email them to me, identifying the date taken and street,” she said. Her email is Haag-Rhonda@MonroeCounty-FL.Gov<mailto:Haag-Rhonda@MonroeCounty-FL.Gov>. “The county is assembling a database of photos of tidal flooding areas that will help us to identify problem areas and therefore plan for the future on how to respond to these areas.”
And as for what flood-area residents should do with their cars, Haag said, “This would be up to each resident.”
Meanwhile, if Murphy were one of those residents, she said, “What I would do is I would park my car on high ground, I would put on a pair of boat shoes, and I would walk home through the water. I sure would not drive my car through the saltwater. I would take off my high heel shoes, put on my boat shoes and get down to it.
This week I have been watching a high school friend’s seventh grade daughter, Hannah, so I have been particularly “adventurous,” taking advantage of sharing some of the cool places to visit, right in “our own backyard.”
One such place visited this past weekend was the Jupiter Lighthouse. The first time I toured the Jupiter Lighthouse I was five and attending St Mary’s Kindergarden in Stuart. The teacher and guide walked our class up the hundreds of twirling stairs to pop out at the top and see a panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean and Loxahatchee watershed. We were awed!
I can still remember this experience. In fact for whatever reason, as a child, I believed the lighthouse could talk and that people sat up in the lighthouse in black leather chairs, men with cigars I recall, and together with the lighthouse “invented words.” This childhood idea has stayed with me through out my lifetime and every time I drive past the lighthouse, I remember it…
But I never actually went back until last weekend.
So 45 years later, attending with Hannah, the lighthouse still held its magic.
The lighthouse was built in 1860 to guide sea captains along the Atlantic’s treacherous waters. Its “Fresnel lens” shines 23 miles out to sea. The land around the lighthouse is located on a military reservation that was designated during the Indian Wars. Today the lighthouse is the region’s “oldest active building.”
It’s light was quickly snuffed out during the Civil War, 1861-1864, but thereafter put back in place and still shines today as the only lighthouse in Florida using its original lens. The lighthouse has been through fires, an earthquake, multiple hurricanes, the Indian Wars, and World War I and II. It has seen the entire growth of modern-day Jupiter. In 2000 it was restored and today, honestly, looks almost brand new.
For Hannah and I it was most interesting to note that the lighthouse sits atop an 45 foot sand dune/Indian shell midden lending to its prominence. Another interesting thing we learned afterwards from Facebook exchanges was that the Jupiter Inlet today is not in its original location. When the lighthouse was built the inlet winded through today’s Carlin Park about a quarter-mile south of today’s ACOE’s straight shot into the Loxahatchee River.
The Loxahatchee River, along which the lighthouse sits, was Florida’s first designated “Wild and Scenic River” and translates as “river of turtles” in Seminole. (There used to be hundreds of Green turtles in the area.) Unfortunately for the native peoples the turtles were over harvested and according to local historian Bessie Wilson DuBois, 300 of the local Seminoles were trapped right at the mouth of the Loxahatchee and later sent west during one of the Indian Wars.
The remnants of the original native peoples who lived in the area for thousands of years before their destruction by Europeans, can be seen in their earthen mounds under, and around the lighthouse. (Most famously, under the DuBois Pioneer Home across the river.) These shell mounds, formed by thousands of years of shellfish consumption provided high sights for these ancient people to take watch and a place in some cases to bury their dead.
Most of these sacred places were used by the expanding European culture to make roads. Today they are protected historical sites reminding us of a culture that lived more in harmony with nature rather than trying to overpower it.
The highlight of our visit was when Hannah and I walked to the top of the lighthouse with our tour group which included kindergarten aged kids. I thought about how much time had passed since I myself walked to the top of the lighthouse at that age, I thought about my friend’s daughter growing up in a different but somehow similar world to what I grew up in….
At the very top, Hannah and I were exhilarated. Inspired! We walked all the way around in amazement.
Then it was time to go…
On the way down, I said “Hannah you don’t mind if I say a few word to the lighthouse before we leave do you? She smiled.
I turned my head, held tight to the railing, and whispered: “Good to see you agin Mrs Lighthouse, you are looking pretty good for 154 years old.”
I was silent, and then I swear, I heard her say: ” You don’t look so bad yourself for 50, but please, don’t wait another 45 years to say hi.”
You may wonder, “how we got here,”to this polluted Lake Okeechobee sewer running through the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon and the Calooshahatchee?
In order to do so, we must go way back.
In 1845, Florida became a state, and even before this time, there had been discussion about “draining the Everglades and reclaiming the swamp lands for productive use.”
Florida was poor and the legislature wanted to build its coffers, so when the “Swamp Land Act of 1850” transferred twenty million acres from the federal government to the state of Florida, of course the state legislature had dollar signs in their eyes.
From 1851 to 1885 the Internal Improvement Fund, overseen by the Florida Governor and his cabinet, sold swamp lands, and others, to the railroad companies ; with the money the state made, it built canals and drained more lands, an endless and helpful cycle for building the state’s immature economy.
By 1864, at the end of the Civil War, Florida was broke and it wasn’t until 1881 when Hamilton Disston entered the picture that draining the land started again. Disston paid for the land and started draining it by running a canal through the Caloosahatchee River on the west coast to Lake Okeechobee in the interior as well as parts of the Kissimmee River. The lake dropped substantially; Florida would never be the same. Disston ended up committing suicide due to the Panic of 1893, but he inspired generations of drainers to come.
As early as the mid 1800s, the legislature had discussed draining Lake Okeechobee through the Caloosahatchee and the St Lucie rivers . By 1923, this had been accomplished, on a shallow level, creating a water way across the state through Lake Okeechobee. At the same time, agriculture south of the lake excelled in the the rich soils that had been reclaimed from the great swamp. The state was happy and “feeling rich.” However, within only a few years, the country had fallen into the “Great Depression” and Mother Nature brought Florida to its knees.
The hurricanes of 1926 and 1928, together, killed thousands of agriculture workers when the water of Lake Okeechobee went south, as nature intended. The outcry from the local and state governments of Florida made it to Washington DC, and the true dependency on the the Army Corp of Engineers began.
By 1938 the Herbert Hoover Dike had been built around the once magnificent lake until another hurricane, in 1947, flooded the agriculture south of the lake again.
As it had done after 1928, the Army Corp dug the canals of St Lucie and the Calooshahatchee deeper and wider. Eventually, the Central and South Florida Flood Control Project was formed by the state and federal government for seventeen counties; its headquarters was placed in West Palm Beach, today the headquarters of the South Florida Water Management District -which the flood agency eventually morphed into.
More canals and pump stations were constructed and by the 1960s most of what was eventually called the Everglades Agriculture Area, 700,000 acres south of the lake, would grow primarily sugar. These sugar families became very powerful and influential in government and remain so today.
It wasn’t until the 1970s, under Governor Rubin Askew, that the environment and natural resources became “important,” as the conservation movement of the time demanded such.
The South Florida Water Management District now received an expanded mission that went beyond flood control and water supply for agriculture and other users; this mission now included an “ecological mission.”
To this day, the environment is certainly last in the mission of Florida’s government and today’s sick and polluted waters of the St Lucie, Indian River Lagoon, and the Caloosahatchee attest to this.
For 168 years the state of Florida has protected agriculture above all others. In light of the state’s history and prior poverty, this makes sense. Nonetheless, a lot has changed in 168 years. We’ve had a civil war, slavery has been outlawed, women can vote, children are no longer used as common labor, and we have an African America president. Don’t you think it’s time to change how we drain and destroy our rivers?