Pow! Bill Schroeder shot upright in his bed at the startling bang from the sultry darkness.
“It reminded me of artillery shells from when I was in the service,” Schroeder said, but the roar of 130-mph winds confirmed the explosive reports weren’t manmade. “The trees could only take so much and then they would snap.”
A scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, Schroeder’s curiosity kept him in the precarious locale as Hurricane Frederic aimed directly at him. Though this September will mark 35 years since the major storm event, his memories still quickly return.
Out checking the island, a debris-laden wall of water eventually blocked his return to the lab’s weather equipment so he headed back to his neighborhood on the island’s wooded eastern end. His 2.5-ton military vehicle proved useless when downed trees blocked the road, so Schroeder grabbed a backpack with a flashlight and provisions and started out on foot.
“Climbing over the fallen trees was only part of it,” he said of the difficult hike. “There was also the wind. You have to be very careful about where you are and getting the right balance because of the gusts and among the trees they have their own friction and the wind’s dodging around in different directions. Most difficult was out in an open area, you’d just get caught in the full force.”
Schroeder was lucky. Others were trapped in their houses. The Ship & Shore, a little cinderblock store, was obliterated by the storm. He saw it when he ventured out at dawn.
“About first light, we started to walk down toward what we called ‘Humpback Bridge’ leading to the mainland,” Schroeder said. “We got down there and lo and behold the midsection of the bridge – the causeway – was gone.”
“It was pretty astounding to think the storm had enough power to lift entire sections of concrete and just toss it into the air and into the sound there,” FOX 10 news anchor Bob Grip said.
It would be two years before the three-mile roadway connector was restored. It would be far longer before Mobile would get over Frederic.
Out of nowhere
The central Gulf coast is the heart of hurricane country. Texas and Florida have the most coastline but we get more hits.
“When you look at 10-mile segments of the coastline from Maine to Texas, the number one state for hurricane landfalls is Mississippi and Alabama is second,” Dr. Aaron “Bill” Williams said. “That means the little bitty coastline we have has been hit a lot.”
Williams has been a meteorologist in this area since he arrived at the University of South Alabama in 1967. He was a driving force behind USA founding the Coastal Weather Research Center in 1988 and is currently its director.
According to NOAA, Mobile is brushed or hit with a tropical system every 2.41 years. The area averages direct hurricane hits – hurricane force winds for a few hours – once every 8.88 years.
Storms in 1906, 1916, 1926, 1932 and 1950 were the most notable of the first half of the 20th century. In 1969, Hurricane Camille set a benchmark for intensity. While the small but powerful storm hit well to Mobile’s west and claimed 259 lives, it still drove a 10-foot storm surge into Mobile Bay.
September 1979 arrived as typical late summer. Local attention followed passions to football as the University of Alabama was set to defend its national title and Auburn University expected to field its best football team in almost a decade.
Category 2 Hurricane David scooted up Florida’s eastern shore in the first week of that month as its outflow caused problems to the tropical system in its wake. Once a hurricane named Frederic, the tagalong dropped to tropical depression strength and struggled along Cuba’s southern coast.
Mobilians turned their attention elsewhere. On Sept. 8, they settled in to watch the Crimson Tide defeat Georgia Tech 30-6 in a rare televised game on ABC.
Dr. Williams was at the beginning of a broadcast career, having started weather updates for radio station WKSJ-FM in January 1979. An incident there proved prophetic.
“I had stopped in to KSJ and found some people throwing the advisories away because they thought Frederic was finished,” Williams said. “I said, ‘No, no, no, it’s not over yet.’”
Frederic left Cuba’s western tip and exploded into full strength over the Gulf’s warm waters. On Sept. 10, it was back at hurricane level, picked up speed and turned to the north-northwest.
“It became evident once it strengthened off Cuba it didn’t have room to recurve back to the east and it was going to ride a weakness right up into our area,” Williams said. “It became evident the day before that it would hit us or just to the west of us. We thought the likely target to be the western tip of Dauphin Island.”
In the bullseye
This would be a crucial test for one new body. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had just sprung to life in April 1979.
Evacuations were ordered. Estimates range between 250,000 to 500,000 gulf residents fled the coast in one of the largest evacuations in American history until then.
“One of the reasons why the deaths were so low in Frederic was because people in the central Gulf Coast were still in the shadow of Camille, which had only been 10 years earlier. I think they were aware and evacuated,” Williams said.
Gov. Fob James phoned local officials and said he was sending a communications trailer to set up in Spanish Fort. Before the storm was done, heavy armored military vehicles were brought in to anchor the trailer against the winds.
“We got [to the Emergency Management Agency command center] the day before and got everything activated and ready to go,” then-mayor of Mobile Gary Greenough said. “I saw Sheriff Tom Purvis and he said, ‘see ya later’ and he took off for the south end of the county and I didn’t see him for a week.”
By Sept. 12, Frederic was bearing down on the Azalea City. Out in Mobile Bay, something odd occurred.
“The configuration of the storm resulted in a northeasterly wind that actually pushed water away from the causeway for a long period of time,” Williams said. “The battleship was basically standing out there in a mud flat.”
According to a NOAA report, a gauge at the state docks showed the water level dropping more than 2 feet before it settled at close to negative 1 foot in the last half of the day on Sept. 12. It began to rise again before midnight and would peak at about 8 feet in the early hours of Sept. 13.
The city of Prichard told citizens without safe shelter to head to designated schools, churches and the city hall. They sent a representative to the EMA while Mayor A. J. Cooper remained at city hall.
The city of Mobile issued a “seek safe shelter” order to the police and darkness fell with the storm just offshore. Sustained hurricane force winds were recorded on the Dauphin Island bridge gauge – 65 feet above the water level – for more than six hours, from 5 p.m. Sept. 12 until nearly midnight.
Williams was also in the EMA center atop Spring Hill on McGregor Avenue. He received periodic information and data then would address the gathering from a stage.
“It was kind of interesting because we had not only the complete arrangement of people that normally are there representing the city of Mobile and the county and so on, but the news reporters. I think I met people from Newsweek and TIME magazine that were all in there that night asking questions about what was going on so it was an eventful thing,” Williams said.
They had several advantages over average Mobilians that night. The first was emergency power.
“We had the power turned off in town and it was a smart thing to do because we had a lot of frame houses in Mobile and the last thing we wanted was people burning up or having gas explosions,” Greenough said.
“Because of the way [the EMA center] was built as kind of a bunker we could stand outside still protected and watch what was going on because we had huge spotlights out into the surrounding area and it was an awesome sight,” Williams said. “We had gusts up over 100 mph.”
“The ferocity was shocking; it was an out-of-this-world experience,” A. J. Cooper said. “The winds that hit, so many homes were destroyed with roofs just torn off, just completely destroyed.”
“During the 10 o’clock news I was doing a debrief with a CBS correspondent named Bruce Hall who came down to cover the hurricane,” then-WKRG anchorman Bob Grip said. “The two of us were sitting there talking about what it was like outside because he had just come back from some of the storm stuff. And I thanked him and I said, ‘Well, it sounds like the storm is on top of us right now’ and with that all the power died. They had to switch over to the crew we had over at the transmitter side in Baldwin County because we were completely dead at that point.”
With the power out, Grip looked for a place to catnap. Safety factored in.
“I fell asleep under the news set. I figured if something happened to the roof, I wanted at least that to brace the fall of whatever was up on top,” Grip said.
The storm reached peak intensity not long before the eye crossed Dauphin Island at 10 p.m. It made landfall near the Alabama-Mississippi line about an hour later.
At the EMA hub, radar reports showed an unusually massive eye that looked to be 30 to 40 miles across. Officials considered attempting rescue runs during its passage over the town but decided against it.
“A lot of dry air had been pulled in and affected the rainfall which made the eye look bigger on radar,” Williams said. “We even noticed that in Mobile County and to the north of us with the lower rainfall levels there was a lot of salt burn on the vegetation, the amount of wind blown salt that normally would have been diluted was carried well inland.”
“When the storm came in it started to push water back into the bay, but at that time Frederic had started to decrease over land. So we never got the record breaker but it could have been worse,” Williams said.
NOAA maps show the worst of the storm surge in Mobile Bay affected the western shore, roughly from Fowl River southward at about 12 to 13 feet. It was 10 feet and below in the upper bay. Eastern Shore levels were 2 to 6 feet lower.
“Frederic’s impact in our area wasn’t with water – it only rained about 8 inches – but with wind. It was the first time since 1926 that Mobile had really been hit hard,” Williams said. “There are some indications that about the time it reached the coast it was attempting to strengthen. It basically ran out of water or it might have worked its way back up to a Cat 4 or worse.”
Downtown was filled with not just the winds, but a haunting chorus signaling destruction.
“I remember hearing the alarm bells from all the banks downtown because all of their plate glass shattered and you just heard the burglar alarms just go on for hours and hours and hours. It’s an enduring memory,” Grip said.
Frederic was downgraded to a tropical storm about 7 a.m. near Meridian, Miss. Now survivors had to dig out.
Williams said the vehicles in the lot outside the EMA center were covered in downed trees. His was luckily only beneath boughs and had close to no damage. By the time the National Guard cleared a path through the debris to Interstate 65 down the hill, Williams was ready to head home to the Eastern Shore.
“The Bayway was relatively new at that time, only about two years old, but I was looking down on top of where the restaurants had been on the causeway, like Roussos and the only thing there was the sign,” Williams said. “That was only with 8 feet of water. Katrina had 16 feet.”
WKRG reporter Mel Showers had run home to make sure his family was safe. Afterward, he tried to return to the TV station on St. Louis Street but it was nearly impossible for one reason.
“Trees. In the city and Mobile and Baldwin counties, nearly every one of them was down. I’d never seen anything like that. Trees as far as the eye could see were down,” Showers said. “All the trees were down and many, many numerous utility poles, they were also down.”
Mobile city parks lost an estimated 50,000 trees. In the entire county, 90 percent of all structures and 75 percent of all commercial buildings sustained damage. Frederic did nearly $14 million in damage to the state docks.
The destruction zone stretched across the bay and throughout Baldwin County. Orchards were decimated, as were tourist attractions.
“The following day I flew in a military helicopter along with then-Sen. Howell Heflin and got a chance to see how widespread the damage was,” Showers said. “We flew over Gulf Shores and it was unbelievable.”
Prior to Frederic, the sleepy beach town was more like the western end of Dauphin Island is now. The storm leveled 80 percent of Gulf Shores’ structures.
Back at the WKRG studios, an Army Corps of Engineers generator was brought in and the news business resumed. Improvisation was necessary.
“We actually did the newscast outside on the sidewalk,” Grip said. “There was a crew from one of the network morning shows that came along and shot the video of us sitting basically at a table outside. We had no editing, we were just, you know, bring a reporter in, run some tape on the air. We’d talk about it because we realized we were on radio and some people had electricity to watch us but we’re just trying to be as descriptive as possible.”
The lack of phone and power played havoc. In Connecticut, Grip’s mother was worried about her son, having heard the roof of a TV station had collapsed.
“She didn’t know I was OK until she saw the video of me anchoring from the sidewalk,” Grip said.
An estimated 167,000 people were without power. More than 100,000 were without phone service. With no utilities in the late summer heat, ice became a prized commodity.
“We never dreamed we’d be distributing ice so we just had to set that up and go with it the best we could,” Greenough said. “We brought in a guy from Pelican Ice in New Orleans. We had a bunch of city staff people, a bunch of planning staff who were placing the orders.”
He said the city was lucky in that a capital improvement fund was available for those purchases. FEMA would later reimburse the city. A Delchamps grocery store on Moffett Road was used as a distribution point and motorcycle police squads escorted the ice trucks.
“First of all, I need to tell you great credit is due President Carter. He put the White House staff on the line with us all the time and they backed up our requests when we ordered ice from east and west. We ordered it through cities, from individual people,” Greenough said.
President Carter flew into Mobile Sept. 14 to survey the damage. He also viewed the devastation in Gulf Shores as he flew on to Pensacola.
Carter’s declaration of 31 counties as disaster areas opened up federal assistance. Aid poured in from around the nation, food from Detroit, ice from Jackson, Miss., clothing from Houston.
Cooper said Gov. James wasted no time contacting him the next day. The mayor’s brother was on the governor’s cabinet at the time.
“I told him we were going to need temporary housing and water,” Cooper recalled. “Within days we had jugs of water we were distributing. FEMA helped us by getting 100 trailers and we would eventually get around 600. I also told James the county was going to need extra food stamps because people had no jobs to get to, no way to make money for food.”
In the first week after Frederic, the Department of Pensions and Securities issued $2.4 million in food stamps. The Small Business Administration made millions in low-interest loans available.
In Mobile, tempers grew short in the relentless heat and emergency measures were taken. A 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew was established while the U.S. Army National Guard patrolled the Mobile streets.
Cooper said his first responders all performed admirably – “36 hours on and 10 off, same with the fire department” – but exhaustion took its toll. The curfew also didn’t work so well to deter looting.
“A day later I issued an order telling them to fire two warning shots then shoot-to-kill,” Cooper said. “I wanted to scare the hell out of some folks. Then Gov. James sent in the National Guard and provided lights with many of these guys in their own jeeps patrolling.”
The looting ceased.
Greenough told of one shooting accident that didn’t involve looting. What it involved was potential embarrassment.
“There was a young lady who I think was from Dothan she was a student out here at South. She had come into contact with this guardsman in a club or restaurant or somewhere like that,” Greenough said. “Anyhow they wound up in a car together and I don’t know whether it was deliberate or by accident but he wound up shooting her in the hip with an M-16.”
It piqued interest in Montgomery. Greenough said she turned out to be the niece of a high-ranking elected official.
“One of the ladies in my office had to get up bright and early each morning and call out to USA Med and get an update on her and then call the capital to tell how she was doing,” Greenough said. The curfew was eventually lifted Sept. 24.
The Corps of Engineers coordinated the widespread collection of over 10 million cubic yards of debris. It was gathered into established areas and burned. Residents said the fire pits cast a yellow glow over the city at night.
Greenough told of close calls with relief lines, short tempers and bottled spirits, which prompted him to coerce the governor to temporarily close all the state liquor stores.
“I think he gave some public explanation that they had to keep them closed to complete the inventory or something. The Press-Register jumped all over him for trying to hinder the recovery effort by keeping the liquor stores closed,” Greenough said.
The historic city hall on South Royal Street – now the History Museum of Mobile – sustained heavy damage, losing most of its roof. A temporary facility was established near Dauphin Street and I-65.
Makeshift entrepreneurship arose, like charging $10 – $32.83 now, adjusted for inflation – for a bag of ice. Not all of it was welcome.
“I wound up seizing a load of chainsaws some guy from New Orleans thought he was going to sell and make a fortune,” Greenough said. “He had sold a good bunch of them before a police captain came to my house and got me and took me out there. So we took them down to where we were feeding the police and I told them put these in your car and when you run up on something in the road, get out and cut it and clear the road and when all this is over it’s yours. So we had a bunch of chainsaws that we didn’t pay for but that guy made money anyhow. He had sold a bunch of them before we got there.”
The caper arose again in the following months when a major in the police department dropped by the mayor’s office. He wanted to document the event.
“I took his paperwork and tore it up and put it in the garbage can and said, ‘there were no chainsaws,’” Greenough said.
Grip said his own residence went 18 days without power and far longer without phone service. He said it was six months before he had cable TV service again.
“I never want to see Dinty Moore beef stew again. I’ve had my fill of that,” Grip half-joked.
As is common to humanity in the wake of earthquakes, tsunamis or even terrorist attacks, the storm lit a communal spark in Mobilians. A common memory among survivors was neighbors who pooled quickly thawing freezer stores for cooking out on grills.
South Central Bell brought in crews from around the nation. They replaced 2,600-plus telephone poles and laid more than 605 miles in cable to restore most phone service in 20 days.
The power was restored bit by bit, all under the guidance of inspectors. Special caution was made regarding possible gas leaks.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better response from the citizenry,” Greenough said. “Granted there were those with complaints and certainly we were not perfect, we had a lot of stops and starts. It was a brand new ballgame.”
FEMA was the focal point for nearly $250 million in federal aid for recovery, $188 million of which went to Alabama.
The damage estimate was $2.3 billion – $7.9 billion in today’s dollars – exceeding 1972’s $2.1 billion Hurricane Agnes to become the costliest hurricane in U.S. history until Hurricane Hugo caused $10 billion in damage on the East Coast in 1989.
Over a dozen tornadoes were reported, mostly along the Gulf coastal sections but they caused no deaths and only minor structural damage. All told, only five deaths came from Frederic and only one of those was on the coast.
Greenough attributed heavenly intervention. He said all predictions called for a wetter storm.
“There was a Christian group meeting at the Mississippi coliseum in Biloxi and they had a prayer session for us at the time the storm was coming ashore. They prayed that the storm would be a relatively dry storm and it was,” Greenough said. “If it had been as wet as we expected, we would’ve been making a morgue out of the civic center. So am I alleging that God moved his hand in our favor? I think I am. I think He protected us in a mighty, mighty way.”
Others see a positive side to Frederic. They believe lessons were learned.
“It made available FEMA resources to get things done that needed doing beforehand,” Cooper said. “It took a fair amount of time to get over it but Frederic was the key to Mobile getting super prepared for hurricanes.”
“Mobile has had a lot of hurricanes that come by, some direct hits, some miss us, but in my lifetime I’ve never seen anything like Hurricane Frederic,” Showers said. “For this area, in the last 50 years I would say it was the hurricane of all hurricanes.”
The newsman credits the storm with another undeniable benchmark. Gulf Shores is entirely different these days with multi-story condos littering what were once just dunes and modest houses on piers.
“After Frederic came through and they saw the potential of Gulf Shores, then they started to build. It was after the storm,” Showers said.
Mobile hasn’t had a close call with a hurricane since Katrina in 2005. The current reprieve matches our average for worry-free seasons.