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Recalling Hurricane Frederic's Impact 40 Years Ago

For the Pensacola area, Hurricane Ivan, which slammed the Florida-Alabama Gulf Coast 15 years ago, is now THE storm by which all others are compared.

Prior to that, it was Hurricane Opal in 1995 and Hurricane Frederic, which barreled ashore 40 years ago, in September 1979.

Frederic caused a lot of damage along the gulf coast and vividly changed the landscape of the region’s beaches, including Pensacola Beach.

“I’ve been an owner out here since 1979; lived here for a year or two and then got married and moved away,” said resident Terry Preston. “We moved back when we rebuilt our house after Ivan.”

Preston actually bought her home off Via De Luna Drive on Pensacola Beach in April of 1979, a few months before Frederic’s September landfall. At the time, the graduate of the Merchant Marine Academy worked as a ship’s mate for Exxon. She says her neighborhood already was built-out, but there was plenty of room for growth elsewhere on the island.

“It was not nearly as developed as it is now. Of course, everything east of my neighborhood wasn’t even in existence. “We were the last neighborhood on the beach,” said Preston. “So, you’ve got Sugar Bowl, Calle Hermosa, two more neighborhoods, all the towers at Portofino. (In 1979) It was all just dunes, just open beach.”

Back then, she recalls, Via De Luna was a two-lane road. There were few condos and hotels. Many of the houses on the beach were single-story, concrete block. And, the Sugar Bowl was the center of a circular group of tall white sand dunes - and not a neighborhood.

“So, it’s definitely developed a lot more since Frederic. But, the dunes, especially down Ft. Pickens Road were huge, I mean 2-3-4 stories high, beautiful. It was amazing,” she remembered. “ If you went down onto the National Seashore, again, you had the same thing.”

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Retired National Park Service ranger and long-time Pensacola-area resident Mike Aymond recalls Hurricane Frederic in 1979.

“Well, some of my memories of coming out here would be driving down to the end of Santa Rosa Island into the Fort Pickens area,” said Mike Aymond, a retired National Park Service ranger.

Aymond has been a resident of the Pensacola area since the early 1970s, living mostly on Perdido Key.

The gulf winds are blustering the day we meet at Park West on Ft. Pickens Road to discuss the 1979 hurricane.

“At that time you wouldn’t see the Gulf or the Sound in many cases or the bay, on either side, as you drove down because the dunes were so large,” he recalled. “Once you got to the seawall at the end of the island, there was a field of very high dunes that you could walk thru to get out to the point, if you didn’t go right on the beach.”

In the late 1970s, in the run up to Hurricane Frederic, the dunes on Pensacola Beach generally were thought to be taller and wider than they’ve been since. 

Credit Fort Pickens Discovery Center
Fort Pickens Discovery Center
This image of what dunes looked like decades ago is on display at the Fort Pickens Discovery Center.

The Fort Pickens Discovery Center includes an image depicting dunes that were 30 feet tall in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Back then, many areas required beachgoers to cut a path in order to climb up and over the dunes to get to the water.

The dunes on the Gulf behind Terry Preston’s house, which is now on pilings (thanks to Ivan), measured about 10 feet. Sherecounts watching the approach of Hurricane Frederic on television, while on anchored on a ship in Galveston, Texas.

“I’m looking at these waves just banging away at the pier and I realized that was our pier, at my beach, where I had just bought a house four months earlier,” she reminisced with a chuckle. 

Hurricane Frederic was a strong Category-4 storm when it made landfall at Dauphin Island west of Pensacola on the evening of September 12, 1979. 

Credit National Weather Service
National Weather Service
Satellite image of Hurricane Frederic in September 1979.

WKRG-TV5 produced a ten-year retrospective titled, “Hurricane Frederic: A Night to Remember.”

The narrator describes the aftermath, “September 13, the fury of Hurricane Frederic has left a path of destruction 250 miles wide and 150 miles deep. Hurricane force winds had stretched from Hancock, Mississippi to east of Pensacola.”

The Pensacola area recorded 96 mile-an-hour winds and storm surge as high as 15 feet.

The narration continues, “Overall, Pensacola fared better than most coastal areas, but there was heavy damage along the water, nonetheless.”

In the documentary, an unnamed Pensacola Beach resident describes the damage to her home. “The worst damage is to the interior. The rising water came up a foot and a half or two feet on our furniture” the woman recounted.

“Sand had literally covered all the way across the cull de sac, up my driveway, over my lawn, up to the doors. But, for whatever reason, my house was a little bit higher than a lot of the others and I got no water inside the house,” said Preston, counting herself fortunate.

Overall damage from Frederic topped $2 billion, including $1.7 billion in the United States. At the time, it was the costliest storm in U.S. history.

A post-Frederic report from the Army Corps of Engineers showed damage to homes and infrastructure across Perdido Key and Santa Rosa Island in Escambia County cost nearly $6 million.

Additionally, according to the report, the wind and storm surge ‘moved and flattened the primary dune system from Pensacola Beach to Horn Island, Mississippi.’

Credit Photo courtesy of West Florida Historic Trust
Photo courtesy of West Florida Historic Trust
This picture depicts damage on Pensacola Beach following Hurricane Frederic.

“You had two to three feet of sand on the roads and across. There were no dunes where they (dunes) were low; like where we were it was flat,” said Preston of what she saw afterward.

“Actually, I saw Perdido Key first, and it was surprising just how much damage had been done. The Key was flattened; most of the houses were gone,” remembered Mike Aymond.

“Likewise, I actually got a job out here (Gulf Islands National Seashore) to rebuild the dunes with the Young Adult Conservation Corps. And, when we arrived out here in the winter of 1980, it was just no dunes at all.”

While those large dunes of the day were mostly gone, they did their job.

An official quoted in an article from the Pensacola News/Journal 40 years ago, said all structures on the island would have suffered far greater devastation without the protection of the dunes.

As noted by Aymond, dune restoration began right after Frederic. Dunes were flattened again in 1995 by Hurricane Opal, but the first beach nourishment project on Pensacola Beach didn’t occur until 2002. It was necessary again just a couple years later post-Ivan and most recently in 2016.

Credit Sandra Averhart
The dunes at Ft. Pickens today are recovering.

From the beach behind her house, Terry Preston likes the progress.

“Maybe another three to four feet of dune, we’ll be back to where we were,” she projected. 

In response to a suggestion that the full recovery could happen in a few more years without a storm she said, “Gosh, keep your fingers and toes crossed. Yeah, that would be great.”

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.