Whether you were counting it as a blessing or doubling down on second guessing, Hurricane Dorian’s close brush with the Golden Isles this week left most folks I know breathing a collective sigh of relief.
It could have been worse, everyone agreed. And as the winds began the whip and the tides began to froth Wednesday afternoon in advance of Dorian, many — myself included — were bracing for something akin to Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and the storm called Irma in 2017. Neither of those storms were direct hits, but both wreaked millions of dollars in damage locally and left us awash in flooding, fallen trees and power outages.
To gain still further insight into what a hurricane is capable of around these parts, you have to go all the way back to 1964. Before Matthew, Dora was the hurricane remembered for wielding significant damage locally. For the record, Hurricane Dora was not a direct hit on the Golden Isles either. But the storm that arrived 55 years ago this month destroyed the ferris wheel on Jekyll Island, flooded the streets of Brunswick and washed St. Simons Island beach houses out to sea.
“Dora was the worst hurricane I’ve ever seen in my life,” 71-year-old Brunswick native Steve Roberts told me Thursday, sitting in the parking lot at the Waffle House on St. Simons Island.
Dora also left us with an enduring presidential legacy, which remains a landmark of the oceanfront along the Pier Village and Neptune Park on St. Simons Island. Yeah, I used to wonder myself: Who is this Johnson guy, and why does everyone say he rocks?
Dora formed in early September of 1964 and packed powerful winds of up to 130 mph at one point as it made a slow, plodding trek to the north Florida coast. It came ashore on Sept. 10 somewhere between St. Augustine and Jacksonville. Dora plowed northwest across the Florida panhandle, maintaining hurricane strength all the way to Jefferson County.
That was close enough. There used to be a ferris wheel over on Jekyll Island. And there once was a spacious beach along the waterfront at the Pier Village.
At least four beachfront homes were completely washed away on St. Simons Island. (This was in the pre-beachfront condo era.) At the time, young newlyweds George and Jackie Patelidas had made a temporary home at one of those beach houses, according to a 2014 retrospective article in The News. The couple retreated to the mainland as Dora approached, but left behind much of their furniture and other belongings. They were gambling on the storm passing the Golden Isles by, as Hurricane Cleo had done a couple of weeks earlier.
“The house was absolutely, totally demolished,” Jackie told The News. “It looked like a pile of sticks.”
Robert Stevens remembers 3 feet of standing water covering all the area around what is now the Lanier Plaza at the mainland foot of the F.J. Torras Causeway. “And the road by the lighthouse (on St. Simons) was completely washed away,” he told me. “It did a lot of damage. I’ll never forget Dora.”
One “conservative estimate” put damage on Jekyll Island alone at $1 million, which included severe damage to a couple of motels. Also, it was the end of the Peppermint Land Amusement Park’s main attraction. A front page photo in The Brunswick News around that time shows a twisted cluster and steel identified as the park’s former ferris wheel. “Hello Dora, Goodbye Jekyll Island Ferris Wheel,” the caption reads.
Opened in 1956, the amusement park closed year after Dora in 1965.
Winds ripped the roofs off of about 100 homes in Brunswick, where many streets were inundated with several feet of water and made impassable. Parts of U.S. 17 in the southern part of Glynn County were washed away completely. The F.J. Torras Causeway flooded.
Estimates put the overall damage in Glynn County at north of $3.6 million.
Not the least of this was the loss of one of St. Simons Island’s most prized attractions at the time. That would be the beach along Neptune Park and the Pier Village. Nowadays, folks can enjoy a sliver of sand at low tide there. But come high tide, waves usually splash straight up onto that line of hulking rocks that buttress the seawall.
It was not always like that, said Johnny Cason, presently a Brunswick City Commissioner. “We had all the beach in the world out here,” Cason told The News for that 50th anniversary story. “It was unbelievable how Dora devastated everything. This was bonafide.”
The damage in Glynn County warranted a visit from the sitting president at the time. A front page photo in the Sept. 12 edition of The News shows President Lyndon B. Johnson crawling beneath a large fallen pine to get a better look at damage to a home in Brunswick.
“President Lyndon Johnson found the way blocked as he inspected Hurricane Dora’s damage in a Brunswick homeowner’s yard yesterday, so he went under,” read the photo’s caption.
Johnson also visited what was left of the beach at the Pier Village. Part of the federal relief money that came to Glynn County went toward installing thousands of granite rocks along the beachfront to stymie the erosion.
They are still there to this day. So when you hear folks around here talking about the Johnson rocks, that is what they are talking about.
Back to the present, Hurricane Dorian remains a concern. Before sparing us its destructive force, the storm ravaged our subtropical neighbors in the Bahamas with deadly 185 mph winds.
For those who want to help, an article on page 2A of today’s paper by Lauren MacDonald shows how a local group is offering a way to lend a hand locally.
Many opportunities to assist in the Bahamas will no doubt emerge in the days ahead.
Let us keep the good folks of the Bahamas in our thoughts and prayers.