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Duck Key in the Florida Keys

An Information Guide to Duck Key in the Florida Keys




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Hurricane Donna and Duck Key  


hurricane pictuire
Hurricane Donna and Duck Key

 An alert had been ordered! Residents boarded up, and drive off the Keys on Friday, September 8th, 1960. Saturday brought an overcast sky, 16 mph winds, and a dropping barometer. Rain started and wind speeds accelerated. Those islanders that stayed realized that Donna was headed for Duck Key.


 By midnight the winds reached 160 mph. A Marathon reporter described the sounds he heard as

" ... virtually indescribable. Under the ripping, tearing, screaming, branchee wailing there sounded a steady ferocious drumming as of the hooves of a thousand horses pounding a wooden bridge."

Donna's eye passed over Duck Key at 2 AM bringing silence. The winds returned, but the worst was over.

 With daybreak locals discovered roads washed out between Marathon and Islamorada, cars overturned, and boats sunk or left ashore on highways and streets, Homes too were blown onto roads or into the sea. Roofs were torn off; houses demolished. Those with shelter had no electricity or water.

Duck Key on high ground was spared the sea surge, but 13 inches of rain and water pouring down from the ceiling left Bryan Newkirk sitting in the hotel's main dining room ankle deep in water. When asked what supplies he needed his response was, "Lumber, nails, tools. We've got to get this place back together." With repairs and further improvements the resort did not reopen until December.

Donna caused a million dollars worth of damage to Duck Key's homes and resort facilities. Newkirk's association with Duck Key ended shortly after that. Five years later at age 77 Newkirk died while on a business trip to London.

First hand account e-mailed to Duck Key Online by Richard Philpott.

Richard Philpott experienced Hurricane Donna as a child while living on a small island near the Vaca Cut Bridge. His recollections of the hurricane's impact on Duck Key, and his family are provided below:

"I was six years old when we rode out Hurricane Donna on Yacht Harbor Island (Duck Key Online addition - this is not the Yacht Harbour Island on Duck Key) in Marathon. At 2:05 AM, our roof lifted off the house. We spent the rest of the night in the closet and were literally dug out the next morning after the storm had passed. I remember seeing the Indies House after the storm. Like everything in the middle keys that day, it was a shambles. Far different than when my Dad had taken me to see it when it opened. It seems to me that the top floor was built as a Casino, with all the gambling paraphernalia prepared and ready, because everyone was expecting the new Governor to bring gambling to the Florida Keys. That didn't happen however. All that money went to the Islands. It seems that my father's friend, Les Barrett, who was an architect in Marathon, was associated with the Duck Key project. It was all so long ago. Dad knew a very rich lady who owned a house on Duck Key at that time...her name was Zara, and she had a Yacht with full uniformed crew and captain permanently docked behind her house, ready to take her cruising when she came down from the north. Interesting memories...

It seems that so many hopes and dreams died on the Keys...maybe that is the tragic allure of those islands. You ask why we were on Duck Key afterwards...CBS Television's Ralph Renick came down from Miami with the Catholic Bishop to survey the damage to the islands immediately after the storm. My Dad was a Realtor in Marathon and showed them around.There was, and probably still is, a Catholic Church on Yacht Harbor Island, that was badly damaged in the storm. I'm not even sure they call it Yacht Harbor Island is the island immediately to your left just before Vaca Cut when you're going south on US1. Mr. Renick brought down a film crew to document the 60 foot yachts in the middle of US1, and the other destruction. Now that I think about it, the storm cut off the water supply up at Card Sound, I believe. We were unable to get back to Miami and in fact were without water from the mainland for some 3 months if I remember right. We camped out for several weeks with oil lanterns because we had no power. The Red Cross helped us out for awhile. For some reason, they were not writing Insurance in the Keys in those days, so Dad rebuilt out of his own pocket. He struggled for a couple years hoping things would turn around, but the Cuban Missile crisis struck and ICBM's were brought down. Troops bivouacked in our Baseball Park, where Switlik Elementary now stands in Marathon. That was the final nail in the coffin for a lot of us in the Keys. We packed up everything and drove back to Miami busted. It took Dad 12 years back on the mainland to pull us back up. We were the lucky ones, however. My parents had a friend who was an Olympic swimmer in his youth. He and his wife lived on a little island. When Donna hit, they tried to get out to the car, but the water came up and washed them out to sea. He had her hair in his hands when they were separated. He swam for 13 hours and survived. They identified her remains by an ankle bracelet she wore. That's the story I remember, anyway. I don't think I've embellished it any over the years. We were the lucky ones..."


Florence Morning News

In an article published the Florence Morning News on September 12, 1960, Miami News staff writer Milt Sosin describes what is was like around 11 P.M. as he sought refuge in the central lobby of the Indies House on Duck Key. Sosin together with resort staff, hotel guests, and a few nearby residents could hear "salvos of rocks and boulders" stricking the glassed-in south wing of the building. Next came a "cascade of rain and sea water."

Indies House Lobby

Children sleeping on cushions arranged on the floor awake and begin screaming. Quickly they are moved to side hallways located elsewhere in the concrete building.

"Almost immediately a portion of the roof blew off, with a sound like the howl of a banshee. A sudden shift and the wind struck the opposite end of the building. Grinding and twisting, heavy aluminum window frames collapsed.

The pop-pop-pop sound of breaking windows mingled with the
screams of the terrified children. Lights and power had gone with the emergency generating system. In the flickering light of lamps and candles we huddled in the passageways."

The wind continues and the penthouse windows atop the building are blown out. All floors of the hotel are awash with rain water with "seaweed-bedecked furniture bumbing around in the mess."

By 1 am travelling in the long hallway lending to the main
lobby requires wading through "the rain and seawater sweeping through it, carrying broken glass, stones and bits of metal from the ceiling insulation."

A rear door gives way and people are "picked up as though
in a giant wind tunnel, and blown back toward the main lobby."


First hand account e-mailed to Duck Key Online by George Henry.

"Hi, My name is George Henry & I lived on Conch Key in 1960 when hurricane Donna hit. My Father George Henry Sr. was a carpenter on the Indies Inn and was installing these door knobs when they took us out of school at Sue Moore Elementary in Marathon. I originally was going to just send you some pictures of this door knob and see if you could find any body that recognized it because this was the logo for Duck Key at that time!!

We left Conch Key (best I can remember anyway) about 1-2:00 PM that day with at least three families following each other towards Miami. I remember the people who owned the store and bait shop at the end of the island were called Rick & Berta by everybody.There was another man that was a friend of my parents named HODGE (These are all first names I was about 7 days away from my 7th birthday) . Naturally nobody got back into the Keys past Snake creek or Tavenier Creek for a while and then it was Tea-tables (RELIEF & BRIDGE) that was messed up! so we wound up living in Islamorada. I finally left the Keys for good in 1982 it's still a beautiful place BUT, nothing at all like it was when I was a kid. I had my own skiff when I was 9 and could go just about anywhere I thought it would handle, Could you imagine parents putting that kind of faith into their kid's abilities today. . . . "

In another e-mail unrelated to Hurricane Donna, George Henry gave an account of a recent conversation with an old friend,

"We started talking about how it was back when we were kids down there and how bored we were as teenagers. It's really strange to know that the place you grew up in just does not exist anymore! I'm glad they finally started doing something to control the density down there but I'm afraid they are a little late.

I'm sure there have been a lot of positive changes, for example I remember on Conch Key there was a row of small cabins that had sewage pipes that came out of the ground about a foot away from the water and then just flowed on in. In the late seventies my ex in-laws sold half of the island north of Duck Key (Walker's Island then) to Art and Claire Robinson and they had small cottages that they rented out. We used to spend most of August there just to get away from all the tourists!

I don't know what is there now, hopefully someone with a lot of money bought the whole thing and then left it alone. When I was very young Mr.Walker was still living there and I remember hearing that it was one of the last homesteads in Florida . . . . "


 An e-mail account from Joe Saladino.

"I was 5 years old when Donna hit Marathon. I don't remember a lot about it but I do remember Dad boarding up the house. We went to Miami to stay with my grandparents. My other grandparents rode out the storm in the generating plant in Marathon. It seems like it was several weeks before we were allowed to go home. Dad went before the rest of us did. We had about 4 feet of water in the house and part of the roof was blown off. My parents still live in the same house behind the airport. Thanks for this opportunity to put in my humble offering."


 Bruce Zettel, of Carson City, Nevada e-mailed his recollection of Donna's impact on Key West

I had joined the Navy late in January of 60 and got orders to report to Key West Naval Air Station at the end of July on a set of orders reading "Special Tour Of Duty". Hurricane Donna was a very rude awaking to a fella that just came from Detroit. The town boarded up the day before and that night Donna came. We had assembled in the Annex Mess Hall and spent the night there. We slept under steel tables fixed to the concrete floor. All night you could hear the glass windows in the Seaplane Hanger breaking. Key West faired well but we lost all communications with the mainland and there was no water as the pipeline was cut in three places. No road, water, or communications for three months. Immediately following the storm the Navy sent out equipment to clear the debris and a Medical Team. The City of Key West was supplied fresh water by the US Navy sending in ships and every one of them were set up to manufacture fresh water. The Naval Station held its fresh water in a huge tank and was transferred to Boca Chicas tank by water truck. This was a 24 hour a day run. Damage on Key West and the surrounding islands was light compared to what the middle keys received. I hope that I have opened a small window to the public about Donna.Thanks for the memories.


Some pictures which were taken by US Navy photographers stationed in Key West that were auctioned on E-Bay appear below. The Navy took pictures on September 11, 1960 from Key West to marathon.



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Duck Key, Florida 33050