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Author releases book on Hurricane of 1896

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By Kellie Parkin

Alvin F. Oickle’s new book, The Cedar Keys Hurricane of 1896:Disaster at Dawn, gives a concise view of the late 19th century storm that changed lives and lifestyles on the islands. “(T)he disaster that befell the Cedar Keys helped it become a place apart from the mainland, both geographically and metaphysically,” Oickle contends.

Oickle became interested in the storm when visiting the Cedar Key Museum State Park last summer. “I saw a reproduced Tampa Tribune newspaper story about the hurricane. The headline claimed hundreds of deaths. That intrigued me into exploration,” he said.

He was so intrigued that he began researching and writing about the storm almost immediately. “I am almost embarrassed to say that this book was researched and written in five months. Well, perhaps not embarrassed, but at least a bit surprised myself at the relatively short span,” he said.

He relied heavily on local publications such the archives of the Chiefland Citizen, the Cedar Key Beacon, and the 28 volume Search for Yesterday: A History of Levy County published by the County Board of Commissioners. “In the case of the 1896 Cedar Key hurricane, I was fortunate, as a writer, to have access to two gold mines – all the newspaper coverage and the several first-person accounts already published.”

Oickle’s views of the destruction wrought by the hurricane changed while he researched the topic. “I thought from early reading of newspaper reports of the hurricane that the main island, today's Cedar Key, suffered the greatest loss of human life. But the deaths came in the outer islands and in or near the Suwannee River,” he said.

The storm surge of Hurricane 4-1896 created a 10-foot wall of water that inundated Atsena Otie, surrounding islands, and flooded the town of Cedar Key. “(A) wall of foamy water came plunging over the town. Buildings went down like sticks,” W. M. Anderson, a Florida Times-Union reporter, observed from a second story building on the island.

In the book Oickle has gathered together many archival photographs of the aftermath of the storm that show the devastation produced. Haunting images of shoreline buildings demolished, walls and roofs blown into Second Street, the C.B. Rogers and Company building missing a wall, and residents dressed in Sunday best patiently holding still for the camera to capture the damage are scattered throughout the 126-page book. Other images of life and work before the storm hit are of interest too, as well as photographs of damage in Fernandina as the storm moved north.

First person narratives of the storm such as Velma Crevasse's description of her family’s struggle to survive the storm on Atsena Otie give an immediacy to this work. Historical documents such as the October 14, 1986 statement of the impact by the Levy County Board of Commissioners also aid in reconstructing the event. The commission’s statement reads in part, “The people of Cedar Keys suffered great loss by wind, tidal waves, and fire, and many were rendered destitute.” An appendix of the names of people who died on the Keys rounds out the book.

While researching the topic, Oickle was impressed by the people in Cedar Key who he sees as “reserved, plain-spoken, and hard working. The accounts of the hurricane were written by people with the same characteristics.” He also became intrigued by 19th century island culture. “As a landlubber, I was drawn, too, by the stories about fishing and sponging.”

Oickle was also struck by the first person accounts that he read while preparing the book. “Velma Crevasse's experiences during the storm on Atsena Otie moved me. Velma was in a house hit first by the wind and rain and then, at dawn, the tremendous surge of water off the Gulf of Mexico. Her descriptions made it easy for me to visualize a family seeking safety as their home was being smashed,” he said.