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a storm story

Remembering the storm of ‘47
By George A. Ricker

Almost anyone who has lived in Florida for any length of time has a story or two to tell about a close encounter with a hurricane.

Mine is six decades old. It’s from a time before the tropical cyclones were given women’s names. The memorable ones were usually recalled by the year in which they occurred. I’ve lived in Florida most of my life and would need all my fingers and a few toes to count the storms I have experienced here.

But I remember the October 1947 hurricane most vividly.

My family had moved to South Florida from Virginia. Dad had a sister who lived in a little town in Dade County named Opa Locka and had sent the word to “come on down, the water is fine.”

Like many families after the end of World War II, mine was ready for a change. After selling the house in Norfolk, the folks loaded up the 1940-something Studebaker with their two sons, clothes and personal effects, shipped the furniture to a storage facility and pointed the car toward the Sunshine State.

What I didn’t know at the time—and wouldn’t learn until much, much later—was that Florida might not be our last stop. Mother, who is still alive and lively at 90, told me recently that the plan was to give South Florida a trial period, after which, if things didn’t work out, we would move on to Omaha, Nebraska, where my parents had met and married and where we still have lots of kin.

I can’t imagine how my life would have turned out if that part of the plan had kicked in. I think I’m glad it didn’t. For better or worse, the Rickers settled in Florida, and here we have remained.

By fall of 1947, we were living in the Golden Glades Housing Project just north of Opa Locka. It was military housing that had been built during the war. I was six and had started attending Opa Locka Elementary School. My brother was three.

Our home was a modest apartment with thin walls made of some nondescript building material, sitting atop poured concrete slabs. It was all supposed to be temporary. We already had been through one storm that year, and the wind had whistled around the place. The second one was worse.

Storm number two brought the flood. There was no elaborate system of levees around Lake Okeechobee back then. The Hoover Dike, which was in place, is generally credited with mitigating the impact of the flooding but wasn’t really adequate to prevent it. In fact, the 1947 hurricane and the flood that swamped most of South Florida as a result contributed to the creation of both a new levee system and flood control districts.

Of course, I was much too young to understand any of that. What I understood was a moaning wind that carried the ominous undertone of a multitude of shrieking, screaming voices. What I understood was the shuddering of walls and the creaking of windows, the strange, oppressive stillness of the air inside as the world tore itself to pieces just outside our home. What I understood was the concern I could hear in the whispered voices of my parents and the worry on their faces, glimpsed in the flickering light of candles and a kerosene stove.

What I also understood was a profound sense of relief when it was over, relief that was reflected in the smiling faces of my parents. Mom and dad were never alarmists, but there hadn’t been many smiles while the hurricane had raged. Unfortunately, our relief was short-lived.

By the time the storm had passed and the wind had subsided, the water was rising. Dad decided it was time to clear out the next day, when he killed a water moccasin on the front stoop, which was already submerged and was only about six inches below the door sill.

He pulled the car around, and we loaded it with everything we could carry. The Studebaker rode high. It had running boards, which were under water for part of the trip. No water came into the car though.

We drove along Golden Glades Road, a two-lane highway with canals on both sides. Dad had his head out the window in order to look down through the water so that he could see the centerline painted on the road and keep the car on the pavement. Ours was the only vehicle moving in that surreal landscape.

I peered out the window, stunned by what I saw. There was water everywhere, no land in sight. Along the sides of the road, the tops of a few cars that apparently had gone into the canals could be seen. Occasionally a snake or a small critter would swim by. I don’t recall seeing any alligators, but I’m sure they were around.

Suddenly, with no real preparation for it, we were refugees. For some time after the storm, the preferred mode of transportation in some parts of Opa Locka would be jon boats, poled along the city streets.

After a brief stop at my aunt’s house, which was on a rise of land and out of the water, dad put my mother, my brother and me on a train to Tampa, where we would stay with other relatives until the waters had gone down and the schools had reopened. He stayed behind to work and try to find us a place to live.

My family never returned to Golden Glades Housing Project. It was condemned and torn down shortly after the hurricane had done its work. As I said, I have been through many hurricanes in my years in Florida, but the 1947 storm stands out. It’s the only one that left me homeless.

* The original of this piece appeared in the Lakeland Free Press in 2006. This version is slightly different.

© 2007 by George A. Ricker

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