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David: A hit – and a miss

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

May 27, 2004

It's been 25 years since a hurricane made official landfall in this area.

And Hurricane David in 1979 isn't even considered a direct hit.

Its winds were just below hurricane strength as it stayed mostly off shore from Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast. All it did was knock down a radio tower, collapse the Palm Beach Jai Alai fronton, and ruin Labor Day weekend.

But before the storm reached us, the Caribbean felt the brunt of David's strength.

David struck the tiny, impoverished island of Dominica, and left it effectively leveled; 56 died and 60,000 of the population of 80,000 were left homeless.

Hurricane David
Photos Browse a gallery of David photos

Hurricane David's path

Hurricane David's track

David passed 80 miles south of Puerto Rico on Aug. 30, but left 19 inches of rain, killing seven and leaving $70 million in damages. Wind speeds were up to 150 — just 5 mph short of Category 5. Devastation in islands

David made landfall on the island of Hispaniola, hitting the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo with sustained winds of up to 125 mph. Floods and mudslides, combined with the heavy wind, leveled buildings and washed out roads, killing 1,200 to 2,000. But the 10,000-foot mountains knocked David's wind speed in half, to just below the minimum hurricane force of 75.

As it moved through the Bahamas, winds grew back to 90 mph. Forecasters predicted landfall somewhere between Key West and Palm Beach and issued a hurricane watch.

It was Saturday, Sept. 1 — the heart of Labor Day weekend.

Plans for picnics, softball games and the beach were quickly shelved in the area. In all, about 300,000 would flee, with 78,000 of them going to shelters. Some people went to friends' homes inland. Others headed north, jamming expressways.

But some time in the early hours of Labor Day, Sept. 3, the storm took a little jog to the north. Throughout the day, David inched up the coast, with official landfall estimated at about 6 p.m., near Sebastian.

Palm Beach International Airport recorded top sustained winds of 58. Other recorded top gusts were 92 in Jupiter, 69 in Stuart, and 95 in Fort Pierce.

David came ashore at Savannah, Ga., spawned tornadoes from Virginia to New Jersey, and knocked out power to 2.5 million in the New York City metro area before dying out on Sept. 7 off Newfoundland.

The storm caused about $95 million in damage. Palm Beach County alone reported losses of $30 million, mostly in crops.

Store windows blew out and boats sank. Docks and piers fell into the water. The frame of the Palm Beach Jai Alai fronton, under repair after a December 1978 fire, blew down.

On downtown West Palm Beach's Flagler Drive, the 186-foot WJNO AM radio tower was tossed into the Intracoastal Waterway.

On the Treasure Coast, David flooded coastal roads and tore off some roofs. The one at Stuart City Hall was pulled up 6 inches and inside offices flooded. A 450-foot crane at the St. Lucie nuclear power plant broke in two.

David is blamed for at least 16 deaths nationwide, five in Florida. But for South Florida, David had been a fizzle.

The power to call for evacuations would later shift from the governor's office to local emergency managers. Two local psychiatrists warned a "cry wolf" effect would make residents less willing to react the next time.

Then-National Hurricane Center Director Neil Frank was accused of overly panicking people. But, he said, "If we hadn't and our predictions had been more accurate, the consequences would have been disastrous."

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