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Center of the storm

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  • | 4:00 a.m. May 25, 2011
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It’s hurricane season — the six-month period, from June through November, in which Longboaters experience the price of living in paradise. Being a barrier island, Longboat Key is especially vulnerable to the destructive path of storms. But, year after year, the island seems to weather the storm season: The last time the Sarasota area was directly hit by a hurricane was 1944. 

But, although Longboat has largely avoided being at the eye of a major hurricane, storms have had an impact on the island’s character and history.

Hurricane of 1848
The first Longboat Key settlers wouldn’t arrive for more than three decades. Hurricanes wouldn’t get official names for another 102 years.

But the hurricane of 1848 permanently changed Longboat Key — even though few saw its impact.

According to Karl Grismer’s, “The Story of Sarasota,” and Ralph Hunter’s, “From Calusas to Condominiums,” early Sarasota settler William “Bill” Whitaker spent the storm in his mainland log cabin.

The next morning, he went out to check on his fishing nets. The nets were gone — and in the aftermath of the storm, what he described to his friends as a “new pass” had separated present-day Longboat Key and Lido Pass. The name New Pass stuck and provided a permanent reminder of a storm long forgotten.

Hurricane of 1921
The island provided fertile ground for growing limes, avocados and guavas. By 1921, mid-Longboat Key had been home to a thriving community for nearly a decade. Farmers shipped produce off homesteader Byron Corey’s dock, which was also the site of the island’s first post office. But that changed in October 1921. Evey Huntington and Cy Bispham spoke to the Longboat Key Historical Society in 2009 about how their parents, Jackson and Katherine Bispham, lived and farmed on Longboat Key for more than a decade before the hurricane struck. The family survived by tying a boat between two trees. The hurricane covered farms with salt water, which brought farming activity to an end and destroyed Corey’s dock. Today, the condominium community Corey’s Landing, which stands at the same location, bears the early pioneer’s name.

Hurricane of 1944
The next major hurricane for Longboat Key came Oct. 19, 1944.

Village pioneer Lora Colvin Whitney recalled the storm in her memoir, “Hail This Feisty Village!” which details life in the Longbeach Village from 1885 to 1955:

“ … there seemed to be an ominous stillness in the air, although the sun was still shining,” Whitney wrote.
As block mother, Whitney collected information about residents to give to the Coast Guard before evacuating to the mainland. Later, Whitney returned with the Coast Guard to assess the damage in the Village and to the Whitney family’s Whitney Beach Cottages. Although trees had fallen around the cottages, the cottages, along with most Village homes, remained intact. For the next two weeks, Longboaters had to live with no electricity, refrigeration or telephone service. Whitney  did all of her cooking on a small Sterno stove. The hurricane — which made landfall in Englewood — was the last storm to directly hit the Sarasota-Manatee area.

Hurricane Agnes

Hurricane Agnes swept down on Longboat Key and Anna Maria Island in June 1972 and destroyed at least 25 homes and caused major damage to at least a half-dozen motels.

“I’ve been coming to this island for 68 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” a man told The Islander newspaper.

The man was one of the few residents who had been around for the hurricane of 1921. But that hurricane didn’t bring the same level of destruction that Agnes did, because the islands had little development in 1921.

Hurricane Agnes played a key role in the history of The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort, one of the properties that sustained damage. The extent of the destruction was the catalyst that led Dr. Murray “Murf” Klauber to form a condominium-hotel partnership, the first in the state.

Hurricane Elena
Hurricane Elena struck over Labor Day weekend in 1985. Although the storm headed north, sparing Longboat Key a direct hit, winds hit their highest speeds at a time of extreme high tides, bringing damages of an estimated $5 million. The storm also showed the indirect economic impact a storm can have: At the time, an Inn on the Beach official estimated lost revenue from canceled reservations at $100,000, while managers at the Longboat Key Holiday Inn and Longboat Key Hilton Beachfront Resort each said that they each lost more than $50,000 in revenue.

Hurricane season of 2004
On Aug. 13, 2004 — Friday the 13th — Hurricane Charley seemed to have its eye on Longboat Key. By 8 a.m. that morning, Gulf of Mexico Drive was virtually empty, and by 9:30 a.m., Longboat Key’s Critical Incident Response Team (aka the “last-out, first-in” team) began preparations to leave the island. But by 2 p.m., Charley headed east and made landfall in Port Charlotte. Longboat Key had a few downed power lines and tree branches, but by 6 p.m., it was clear that Longboat had avoided Charley’s wrath. That was just the beginning of the 2004 hurricane season: Frances brought heavy wind and power outages. Ivan barely touched the island. Jeanne blew off the loose clay from the Longboat Key Public Tennis Center’s Har-Tru courts and a 2-foot layer of beach. But with minimal damage and no injuries, everyone agreed that Longboat Key got lucky in 2004.

Hurricane season of 2005

That luck continued in 2005 — a year that tied for the most active hurricane season in history. Longboat Key avoided the destruction of major storms, such as hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Hurricane Wilma brought minor damages, and Hurricane Dennis flooded the Longbeach Village.

Hurricane season of 2011?
Hurricane seasons have been uneventful for the last five years on Longboat Key. This year, forecasters predict a hurricane season that will have less activity than last year’s but still more than average.

But there’s one prediction we can make: Hurricanes have impacted Longboat Key and will continue to impact Longboat Key.

So be prepared: Have an emergency plan in place. Preparation information is available at the town’s website, Leave the island when emergency officials tell you to evacuate. And, although it’s important to plan, cross your fingers that it’s all for nothing and that this year’s storms — from Arlene to Whitney — keep their eyes off of Longboat Key.

Contact Robin Hartill at [email protected].

Click here to download a PDF of NOAA's forecast for the 2011 hurricane season.

The 2011 named Atlantic tropical storms will be:


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