Florida, hurricanes and Labor Day – A brief history -updated w/ PODCAST

Podcast: Labor Day Florida Hurricanes

Florida is forever linked with Hurricanes but especially on Labor Day Weekend. Whether it was the 1935 Keys storm, the strongest ever to hit the United States, Betsy in 1965, 1979’s Hurricane David or 2004’s Frances, Labor Day Weekend often means Hurricanes. 2019 appears to be another anxious one for the state’s residents as Hurricane Dorian continues its path toward the peninsula.

One of the great tragedies of the 1935 Labor Day storm was the death of hundreds of World War I veterans who were building the Overseas Railroad as part of the New Deal’s WPA program. This was just a few years after General Douglas MaCarthur had authorized an attack on the bonus army in Washington DC. Many of those veterans who protested ended up in WPA programs and many were tragically killed in this storm.

Plaque honoring 1935 Labot Day storm victims

The loss of life from this storm was entirely preventable but unfortunately the Weather Bureau in Jacksonville was late issuing warnings for the storm because of the holiday weekend and even after the warning were issued, the train that was to rescue workers on the WPA project left Miami several hours late.

Hardest hit were Craig Key, Long Key, Upper Matecumbe Key and Lower Matecumbe Key. The army veterans that were at camps in the Keys were hustled onto trains late – a clear case of bureaucratic inefficiency from a government that had largely maligned them. Caught on the train in the middle of the storm most perished. All toll about 480 people passed in the storm, almost 300 of which were veterans deployed to the area to work.

At the time of the Hurricane, many leading American newspapers including the New York Times and Washington Post had just written stories attacking the army veterans and urging the closure of the camps like those on the Keys providing employment to World War I vets. The indifference of many in government to the plight of these vets mirrored by those leading newspapers that were tied to the political class quite possibly contributed to the slow response to the storm track and then Hurricane Warnings. When President Roosevelt assigned an investigative committee to assess the storm response, the actual critical conclusion was never published. The portions citing three Federal officials based in Florida as negligent was suppressed.

The American Legion in November issued this statement regarding the storm:

the blame for the loss of life can be placed on “Inefficiency, Indifference, and Ignorance.” Inefficiency in the setup of the camps. Indifference of someone in charge as to the safety of the men. Ignorance of the real danger from a tropical hurricane. And these “I’s” can be added together and they spell “Murder at Matacombe” [sic].

[The] committee early in its investigation noticed a tendency on the part of some to reflect on the character of the men who were veterans in the camps. Several parties referred to them as “bums,” “drunkards,” “crazy men,” “riff-raff” and the like. They seem to think that “they got what was coming to them.”

How anyone could arrive at such a conclusion is impossible for us to determine.

If these men were “bums,” “drunkards,” “crazy men” etc. then it was all the more necessary that every precaution be taken to protect them. If they fell into this category they were subnormal men and should have been treated as such. If they were incapable of caring for themselves then the government should have placed them in hospitals and not have sent them to a wilderness in the high-seas on a so called “rehabilitation program.”

Others testified that the men were well-behaved and that a great majority of them would have preferred to have been placed under military discipline in the camps. But these observations are of no real value except to show that some people are trying to “cover up” the real guilt of responsible parties

On September 1, 2010 I took the day off work and drove to the Keys to pay homage to the men and women that perished in this tragedy 75 years earlier. It was an emotional journey that will always stay with me.

The storm when it was reclassified as the the strongest to ever hit the United States surpassed Hurricane Camile, the 1969 Gulf Coast storm whose center hit almost at the exact same location as Katrina would in 2005. But Camile was tight, powerful killer which hardly impacted New Orleans but ravaged the Mississippi coast. The storm also killed over a hundred people in small rural county in Virginia (Nelson County) when flash floods hit that area in the mountains days after Camile weakened to a tropical depression.

Hurricane Andrew which hit South Dade County in 1992 remains the third strongest US storm on record. The Labor Day Storm, Camile, Andrew and lkast years Michael are the only four storms to hit the US mainland at Category 5 intensity.

Labor Day Weekend 1965, Hurricane Betsy ravaged the southern part of the Peninsula just a year after Labor Day weekend was spent by residents in the northern part of the state preparing for Hurricane Dora. In 1979, Florida residents along the east coast spent Labor Day waiting for Hurricane David. A storm that had killed over a 1,000 people in the Caribbean was forecast to come ashore between Miami and Fort Lauderdale – a worst case scenario in terms of population affected. But instead of making landfall it hugged the coast briefly coming ashore near Melbourne before going back out to sea only to finally hit Georgia and South Carolina.

In 1999, during Labor Day Weekend, Floridians closely monitored and some evacuated in anticipation of Hurricane Floyd. The storm eventually turned north at the last possible moment, impacting North Carolina and points north as a major hurricane.

Perhaps the most agonizing Labor Day Weekend for Florida residents was in 2004 when Hurricane Frances slowly lumbered through the Bahamas as a Category 4 storm, its outer bands battering southeast Florida for 36 hours before finally making landfall on Labor Day as a Category 2 near Sewall’s Point in Martin County.

Most recently 2017 Labor Day weekend was spent by Florida residents anxiously stocking up for Irma. That storm as we all recall took a major tool on the entire peninsula.

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