JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It was Aug. 28, 1964, when a tropical wave developed off the coast of Africa.
At the time, WJXT meteorologist, George Winterling, was settling into his second year as the station’s weather expert.
To grasp the magnitude of what he would do in the next two weeks requires a better understanding of how TV meteorologists built their forecasts in the early 1960s. There was no radar, satellite was not available at that time, there was no heat index, no internet, and no real-time information to provide Winterling with the latest intelligence about what a weather system was doing and where it was going.
Winterling had at his resources a rain gauge, the wind gauge he had installed on the roof at the station, and a barometer to measure atmospheric pressure. He used markers to draw his forecasts for TV viewers and white paint to depict clouds. He used to have to drive to the airport, where the National Weather Service had a bureau, to pick up the latest weather information for his evening forecasts.
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A teletype was eventually installed at the station, but he received reports only when they became available. So, if you a hurricane was approaching our coast, minute-by-minute information did not exist.
On Sept.1, 1964, the depression that had formed off the coast of Africa was upgraded to Tropical Storm Dora. It then curved northeastward and continued to strengthen. Within two days, Dora became a Category 1 hurricane. Hours later, it reached Category 2 strength. By Sept. 5 it had grown into a Category 4. It then weakened and became erratic — maintaining Category 2 strength as it barreled directly off our coast.
“The trouble is the Weather Bureau back then kept saying don’t listen to anyone else’s report,” explained George Winterling.
In fact, the Weather Bureau forecasted the storm would miss Northeast Florida altogether and hit the Carolinas instead.
“I knew the storm would be south of Jacksonville,” explained Winterling. “I got a phone call from somebody at the naval air station and they said I was correct, it was not down where the Weather Bureau said.”
I asked George how he knew — especially since none of the other weather experts were forecasting Dora would hit Northeast Florida? His answer was simple.
“I did the old school,” he said. “The only way you can tell with a hurricane — its steering — is by the barometric pressure. Every time I tapped it, it would go down a little lower and a little lower,” he said describing the gauge. “It got down to 29.06 and that’s when the hurricane was the closest to us, and that was at Saint Augustine.”
Winterling warned our viewers despite what the Weather Bureau was reporting.
Hurricane Dora swept onshore just north of St. Augustine early on Sept. 10, 1964, packing winds of 110 miles per hour as a Category 2.
A 10-foot storm surge pummeled Atlantic and Jacksonville Beaches. Three homes were washed away, and nearly 4,000 others were damaged. More than 150,000 Duval county homes and businesses lost power for days.
Inland, nearly 24 inches of rain fell near Mayo Clinic in just 24 hours. The St. Johns River swelled to six feet above normal high tide — swamping Downtown Jacksonville and Ortega.
In St. Johns County, 14 homes were destroyed by erosion. Floodwaters were described as hip-deep in some parts of St. Augustine.
President Lyndon B. Johnson toured Northeast Florida on Sept. 11, 1964, pledging more than $8 million in federal disaster assistance.
While it was 58 years ago, George Winterling remembers Dora as if it was yesterday. When I pointed out that he likely saved lives and property with his forecast all those years ago, he responded in the same humble tone of a man who loved his work and dedicated nearly 50 years to forecasting storms.
“I think they realized I was taking it seriously — that things could start falling on your house or yourself,” he explained.
George Winterling just wanted to warn as many of our viewers as possible.
As WJXT’s current chief meteorologist John Gaughan explains about Winterling, who was the only meteorologist to forecast Hurricane Dora’s direct hit on Northeast Florida, “and so the legend was born.”
George retired from WJXT in 2009. He is 90 years old.
I hope you will join us tomorrow on The Morning Show at 7:40 a.m. to see more of my interview with Winterling — who has lived in Jacksonville since 1941. His description of parts of our city is fascinating as we look back to the 1940s and look ahead to Jacksonville’s 200th anniversary next month.
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