By Cindy Lane | sun staff writer
If you haven’t left Anna Maria Island by now, it’s too late, warned the announcer on WTRL-AM 1490, broadcasting from the Pier in downtown Bradenton.
It was 1972, and we were listening in the second floor kitchen of a wooden, two-story cottage called East o’ the Sun in Bradenton Beach, near where the Anna Maria Island Club is now.
The owners, Bruce and Jackie Curtis, had already brought in the furniture, all but the heavy concrete tables and benches inlaid with colorful, broken tiles. Their son, Jack, had secured the little boat he had been teaching me to sail a couple of days before.
My family was staying there for a week as a summer break from everyday life across the bridge. With a kid’s perspective, I figured we had a boat we could jump in if the water got too high, so it only seemed exciting, not scary, with the waves crashing and the wind howling through the cracks in the wooden siding.
But it wasn’t long until the Gulf of Mexico began to pour into the apartment downstairs, and the folks down there came upstairs looking for shelter.
I started to wonder about how many people could fit in the little boat.
That storm, Hurricane Agnes, turned one of the concrete tables into rip rap, and it was only a Category 1 hurricane as it swirled far out in the Gulf of Mexico, barely sideswiping the Island.
Hurricane season peaks
The height of the Gulf hurricane season is now.
And true to the calendar, on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 1921, a Category 3 hurricane whipped the Island and Cortez with its tail before making landfall in Tarpon Springs to the north.
Hurricanes didn’t have names 90 years ago, but it’s commonly called a monster, with 115 mile-per-hour winds, said Tony Reynes, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin.
When it was over, one newspaper headline screamed: "Death Rides on Winds," with at least eight people in the Tampa Bay area killed and several narrowly escaping death, one in a rowboat, one clinging to a palm tree, although his elderly wife drowned when he lost his grasp on her, and in the case of a lucky two-year-old, riding on his dad’s back as he swam for land.
In 1921, about 160,000 people lived in the Tampa Bay area; now, it’s 3.5 million, according to the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.
The storm caused between $3 million and $5 million in damage in Tampa Bay, the equivalent of $20 billion to $30 billion today, Reynes said.
Only a few beach houses were destroyed on Anna Maria Island because, fortunately, it was sparsely inhabited, he said.
But at the time, Cortez was a busy fishing village.
The big blow
Today, lifelong villagers who were raised on family stories talk about the hurricane of 1921 as if they had lived through it themselves.
The 1912 Cortez schoolhouse, which is now the Florida Maritime Museum at Cortez, not only survived the storm, but saved many of the villagers who fled there in boats seeking higher ground, according to Mary Fulford Green, of the Cortez Village Historical Society.
Green remembers her neighbor, Luther Guthrie’s mother, telling her she had to wade in waist deep water to carry him to a boat to take him to the schoolhouse.
Green’s cousin, Doris Green, was 6 years old when the storm hit. She recalled in her book, "Fog’s Comin’ In," that she saw houses and boats floating by their Cortez home, the village’s first schoolhouse. The whole family piled into a skiff just before their house floated off its pine pier foundation. They eventually made it to the 1912 schoolhouse, where several of their neighbors had already tied their boats to the railing outside.
Everyone had thought it was too late in the season for a hurricane.
A telegram had arrived at the Albion Inn, the community store, on the night of Oct. 23 warning of a storm, according to Green.
But on Oct. 24 at noon, it changed to a hurricane warning, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s monthly weather review dated November 1921: "Key West to Apalachicola. Increasing winds and gales and hurricane velocities along the coast. Emergency: warn all interests."
It was too late. By Tuesday morning, Oct. 25, Cortez was underwater, five feet deep at the docks, according to a Bradentown Herald newspaper report, which apologized for the paper being a day late "on account of the power being turned off Tuesday and Wednesday."
When the winds died down, nothing was left on the Cortez waterfront but pilings embedded deep into the mud of Sarasota Bay.
And the Albion Inn.
Today, behind the 1912 schoolhouse museum, the Bratton store is all that’s left of the sturdy Albion Inn complex.
William C. Bratton built the structure in the 1890s at Hunter’s Point, the original name of Cortez. The building had a store, a U.S. Post Office and a steamboat wharf. When hotel rooms were added at the turn of the century, a new section opened, the Albion Inn.
The inn survived the hurricane only to face demolition in 1974, when the property was sold to the U.S. Coast Guard, which planned to tear it down. The Cortez Village Historical Society and the Organized Fishermen of Florida raised $12,000 to save the store portion of the building in 1991, moving it from its site near U.S. Coast Guard Station Cortez in 2006 to the museum grounds, where it is still under restoration.
The hurricane robbed store owner Joe Guthrie of $15,000 in damages with the loss of the store, dock, fish house and boats, according to the Herald. M.F. Brown also lost his store and the family home above the store, another $15,000 loss, according to the newspaper.
"Practically everyone at Cortez had some loss, either from wind or from the water which was in all the houses," the report said.
People from Bradentown (one of the former spellings of Bradenton) drove out to the water line near Palma Sola to help Cortezians arriving in boats to move inland.
In the strong current running down the streets, it took three men wading to push a boat full of women and children two miles to land, the Herald said.
Two people turned up who had been reported missing from Cortez, but they had only evacuated without telling anyone, Reynes said.
Villagers began to untangle their nets and salvage some fishing gear and boats. They shored up the Albion Inn with rocks blasted from the dredging of Longboat Pass and the Jewfish Key channel.
They were disheartened to see that the first bridge under construction from Cortez to Bridge Street in Bradenton Beach had been destroyed by the storm, according to Anna Maria Island historian Carolyne Norwood.
The fishermen soon discovered that a favorite Tampa Bay fishing ground, Passage Key, also was destroyed. The key, which had a freshwater spring, was a bird sanctuary monitored by boatbuilder Asa Harmon Pillsbury. His boat shop, now 114 years old, was relocated in 2007 from Snead Island to the grounds of the 1912 schoolhouse museum.
If a hurricane like the 1921 storm hit Anna Maria Island today, "Some have said the fragile barrier island would have so many passes cut through it that it would be unrecognizable," Green wrote in her book.
But as for Cortez, villagers say it has survived depression, war, red tide, fishing regulations and encroaching development, and is just too tough to die, come hurricane or high water.
If another hurricane approaches, the 1912 schoolhouse museum will no doubt be crowded with villagers, who to this day hold it as the safest place to ride out a storm.
While no hurricanes are on the radar heading this way at the moment, wind patterns are favorable for a hurricane before the season ends on Nov. 30, warned Reynes, of the National Weather Service.
"Historically, this is the time of year we get hit more," he said. "Don’t lower your guard."
And put the 1912 schoolhouse museum in Cortez on your evacuation shelter list, just in case.