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Hurricane Donna: Irving Eyster's Harrowing Trip to Islamorada
Longtime resident and Keys historian, Irving Eyster, passed away earlier this month at the age of 95. A few years ago I was able to spend an afternoon with Eyster and his lovely wife Jeanne, and he regaled me with tales from his past in the Florida Keys. One of my favorite stories was his harrowing tale of trying to get back to Islamorada after Hurricane Donna in 1960 despite the washed out bridges. It was published in Keys Sunday, and I'd like to share it again.
At about 2 a.m. on Sept. 10, 1960, the Keys were hit by Hurricane Donna, which had a force comparable to that of Hurricane Andrew. It made landfall in the Marathon area, centered on Key Vaca as a category 4 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. It had estimated maximum sustained winds of 140 mph and gusts of up to 180 mph with a storm surge of 13 feet.
Longtime resident and Keys historian, Irving Eyster, moved to the Keys with his family in 1947, and he vividly remembers the aftermath of Donna as he tried to make his way home to Lower Matecumbe once the hurricane had passed.
Before the hurricane, Eyster evacuated to Vero Beach with his family. That night, they didn’t sleep. Instead, they stayed up listening to the radio.
“They were giving reports from the lighthouse out at Alligator Reef,” he said. “They were moving up to the top of the tower with their equipment because of the waves. The winds got on up to 165, and the next advisory said that the winds were 60… and they went off the air. They lost their equipment, so we never knew what the top was.”
The next morning, Eyster headed back to his home, anxious to see how his property had fared in the storm. The police had stopped all traffic at Florida City because no one knew the extent of the damage to the highway and the bridges.
“We waited, pleaded with the guys to let us through,” Eyster said. “I told them if we come to a place where the bridges are washed out, a friend of mine right here has got a boat. They let us go ahead.”
The water was about a foot to 18 inches deep across the first few miles south of Florida City, but he and his friend Buck Sloane made their way down to Key Largo moving pieces of cars, houses and other debris out of the road. They finally came to a dead stop when they came across an entire house sitting in the middle of the road.
“We were debating what to do about that, and then there was a whole convoy of trucks coming. It was the National Guard and all the utility trucks that were coming to see what damage was done. I told them to go ahead because I didn’t want to have to break ground for them.”
Driving all the way down to Harry Harris’ restaurant in Tavernier, where the new electric building is now, they finally had to put the boat in the water. They went down the bayside and promptly ripped off the prop of the boat hitting a house. After floating about a quarter of a mile, they ended up in Snake Creek.
“It was just like a big suction tube, and we were barreling through. We were wondering where we were going, and I said, well, we would probably be found quicker out on the ocean than we would here on the bay. And Buck agreed there wasn’t anything we could do.”
When they reached Snake Creek Bridge, the boat landed in a net of fallen telephone wires. They tied up the boat about 100 feet from the bridge, walked across and sat down on Windley Key.
“Almost everything on Windley Key was out on the highway except for this bait shack owned by Bill Clyde down where Smuggler’s Cove is now. Everybody talked for years about that shack. That it would blow down the first wind we had. It was still standing, and all those other buildings were gone. I said I’ve got to clean my glasses and my flashlight.
There was so much water. It was just beginning to get dark. Buck asked, 'Who’s your friend?' About six feet away from me was a rattlesnake curled up. He wasn’t bothering me, and I wasn’t going to bother him. I was just glad to see something alive.”
When they reached Theater of the Sea and Holiday Isle, both were washed out, and there were some large planks on the road. At Whale Harbor, they saw that a portion of the bridge was gone, but that there were some big stones out in the water. They got to the other side by putting the planks across the stones.
By this time it was midnight, and a police officer stopped and gave them a ride down to the coast guard building, which is the Islamorada Library today. They walked further down to Fowler’s Restaurant, now Papa Joe’s. Tea Table Relief Bridge had been taken out by the water.
There were boats and motors from a local boat distributorship owned by George Weed piled across the highway and into the woods. Eyster’s friend decided to see if he could find a boat they could use.
“I was tired, so I lay down on the first hunk of bridge that was left and went to sleep,” Eyster said. “A little while later I was awoken by someone saying, hey there’s a body. I woke up real quick and said, but I’m still using it.”
They eventually got together a boat and a motor. As they got in to cross, a man came out from behind Fowler’s Restaurant carrying a gun.
“He told us that we weren’t going anyplace. I asked him what was his interest in the thing. I know this isn’t your boat, and I’m going to return it as soon as I can. He said, 'I was told that the bank in Marathon was blown wide open, and I intend to get my part of it.' I told him to come and go with us. He said, 'I’m not that drunk.'”
After being forced to relinquish the boat, they went up to the Fish House where Islamorada Fish Company is today next to World Wide Sportsman, and after some serious negotiations talked the man in charge into to taking them in his boat to Lower Matecumbe for $100. They hit several things along the way and had to stop numerous times to take wires out of the props. They got to Lower Matecumbe just as it was beginning to get light.
The road there was down to the bedrock. When they went to his friend’s house, it was gone. They walked down three more blocks to see if Eyster’s house was still there. It was still standing, but it was completely gutted. Eyster also owned eight hotel units, and the end two were partially knocked down where a wave had hit them.
“We left Florida City one morning and got to Lower Matecumbe noon the next day,” Eyster said. “We made good time.”