Like the rest of the nation I’m watching Hurricane Irma chew its way through the Caribbean on its way to a forecasted landfall somewhere on Southern Florida Saturday morning. A few years ago, while bonefishing out of Islamorada, I spotted a memorial off of US Route 1 at mile marker 81.5. I pulled over, my rental car smelling like a fisherman’s underwear thanks to the box of shrimp I forgot in the trunk the night before, and took a closer look.
It was a simple memorial to those who died in the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. The plaque read:
Being a hurricane nerd I went digging and found this essay by Ernest Hemingway, who was fond of the Keys and had a home in Key West at the end of the archipelago. He had traveled to the Keys after the storm on assignment from a magazine, and filed an indignant report because of what had happened to a crew of workers — mostly World War One veterans — who hadn’t been able to escape the storm’s fury. I cite this only because it gives a sense of how exposed the Keys are to a direct hit, and how devastated the islands were on September 3, 1935, when the islands were submerged in a maelstrom and people were forced into the trees to tie themselves down. Hemingway wrote:
“Whom did they annoy and to whom was their possible presence a political danger?’
“Who sent them down to the Florida Keys and left them there in hurricane months?
“Who is responsible for their deaths?
“The writer of this article lives a long way from Washington and would not know the answers to those questions. But he does know that wealthy people, yachtsmen, fishermen such as President Hoover and President Roosevelt, do not come to the Florida Keys in hurricane months. Hurricane months are August, September and October, and in those months you see no yachts along the Keys. You do not see them because yacht owners know there would be great danger, unescapable danger, to their property if a storm should come. For the same reason, you cannot interest any very wealthy people in fishing of the coast of Cuba in the summer when the biggest fish are there. There is a known danger to property. But veterans, especially the bonus-marching variety of veterans, are not property. They are only human beings; unsuccessful human beings, and all they have to lose is their lives. They are doing coolie labor for a top wage of $45 a month and they have been put down on the Florida Keys where they can’t make trouble. It is hurricane months, sure, but if anything comes up, you can always evacuate them, can’t you?
“…It is not necessary to go into the deaths of the civilians and their families since they were on the Keys of their own free will; they made their living there, had property and knew the hazards involved. But the veterans had been sent there; they had no opportunity to leave, nor any protection against hurricanes; and they never had a chance for their lives.
“Who sent nearly a thousand war veterans, many of them husky, hard-working and simply out of luck, but many of them close to the border of pathological cases, to live in frame shacks on the Florida Keys in hurricane months?
“Why were the men not evacuated on Sunday, or, at latest, Monday morning, when it was known there was a possibility of a hurricane striking the Keys and evacuation was their only possible protection? Who advised against sending the train from Miami to evacuate the veterans until four-thirty o’clock on Monday so that it was blown off the tracks before it ever reached the lower camps?”
The hurricane was the first of three Category 5 storms to hit Florida (the other two being Camille in 1969 and Andrew in 1992). A cat 5 storm has sustained winds over 157 mph and obliterates everything it hits. When the 1935 storm hit the Keys it pushed a storm surge 20 feet high over some of the upper Keys, completely submerging them. Although a train was sent down the Keys to evacuate the veterans working on a highway project, it came too late and was overwhelmed by the waters.
About 500 people died on the Keys because of that Labor Day storm, but others estimate the death toll was higher, just as other speculated the death toll from Andrew in 1992 was much higher than officially reported because of the presence of undocumented migrant laborers who were killed and blown into the Everglades. Whatever the toll, the devastation was complete and the aftermath very macabre, with mass cremations of the death occurring in the days that followed.
Godspeed to Florida this weekend.