Category 5 - The 1935 Labor Day Hurricane

Thomas Neil Knowles (Florida, $29.95)

Rarely is a nonfiction book so compelling that it demands to be read in one sitting. But Thomas Neil Knowles' straightforward retelling of the 1935 hurricane that leveled Florida's Middle Keys is the exception.

Knowles provides a sobering yet gripping account of the storm's ferocity, and at the same time personalizes its consequences by making us care about the people it affected. If you are a fan of the Keys, the author's descriptions of life there in the mid-1930s will add to your understanding of why it is such a unique place to so many people.

On Labor Day, Sept. 2, 1935, a hurricane struck Islamorada with winds that may have been as high as 185 mph. The storm surge reached 18 feet twice, first when the Category 5 storm slammed into the islands and then again when its backside washed out of the Gulf of Mexico.

Most striking in this generally riveting account is how many people died - not by drowning, but by being struck by debris in the roiling water. Also shocking is how many people managed to survive and how vulnerable residents in coastal lands were then to a regional office of the U.S. Weather Bureau (forerunner to the National Weather Service) crippled by its location (Jacksonville) and blinded by its lack of contact with weather observers in the Caribbean.

The Weather Bureau knew a storm was coming and posted warnings for the entire Keys on Sept. 1. But the essential information - where the storm was headed - was hopelessly wrong, Knowles writes. Forecasters had the storm turning south toward Cuba when instead it had drawn a lethal bead on the Middle Keys. By the time forecasters got its path right, there was no hope for evacuation, and only a few cautious souls headed to the mainland early enough.

Knowles, a fourth-generation Conch, isn't a fancy writer, so he never overstates an event that is dramatic enough without literary embellishment. His book is filled with useful maps, helpful graphs and period photos that portray the Keys as a backwater. He opens with a concise history of the U.S. Weather Bureau, which Congress established in 1870. In the early 20th century, the bureau had an excellent Key West office and a network of volunteer Caribbean weather observers. But by 1935, Key West was eclipsed by Jacksonville, the observers' network long gone.

All of 284 people then lived on the four islands - Lower and Upper Matecumbe, Windley and Plantation keys - that comprise Islamorada. They were outnumbered by 695 World War I veterans in four work camps. The veterans were part of the "Bonus Army" that had descended on Washington, D.C. Hit hard by the Depression, the veterans posed a political problem for President Herbert Hoover and his successor. Franklin Roosevelt set up voluntary work camps for the former soldiers, not unlike the Civilian Conservation Corps, which brought the men to the Keys.

Knowles details the veterans' bosses' excruciating dithering over whether to order a train from Miami for evacuation. When they finally did, the train was halted by waves in Islamorada. Some residents were prepared for a storm but not one of this magnitude. Others were caught off guard, celebrating the holiday with family and friends down from the mainland.

In all, 485 fatalities were attributed to the storm - 257 veterans and 228 civilians.

The rescue of survivors, as described by Knowles, was as dramatic as the storm. The fill blocking channels between islands for the railroad bed was washed away, and miles of track were destroyed, as was Islamorada's northern link to the Overseas Highway. Boats from the Upper Keys and mainland began rescue attempts late Tuesday. By Thursday, the state had taken charge of recovery of hundreds of bodies.

Only two buildings still stood in Islamorada; both were rebuilt, but Henry Flagler's train ceased to run. Several long bridges linking the Lower Keys instead took the highway to Key West, opening the way for development. Today, writes Knowles with a certain dry understatement, "Emergency-management personnel estimate that during hurricane season there are approximately eighty-thousand people on the islands, including Key West, who could be in harm's way."

In South Florida proper there are approximately 5 million in that same harm's way. That's something to ponder as we enter yet another hurricane season.

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