With Hurricane Ian’s death toll rising in addition to the other enormous costs for Florida, this seems like an appropriate time to discuss the 1935 Labor Day Keys Hurricane, the strongest to ever make landfall in the US.
The National Hurricane Center in 2014 reclassified the 1935 Keys Labor Day Storm, one of the greatest tragedies in Florida’s History as the strongest storm to ever hit the US mainland. The storm hit 83 years ago today on September 2, 1935.
One of the great tragedies of the 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. Following Franklin Roosevelt’s election in the 1932, works programs were passed and put into place. These programs benefited Florida in particular, which was underdeveloped and had also been devastated by the economic and real estate crash that followed the 1926 Great Miami Hurricane.
The deployment of World War I veterans to the Keys came 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.
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 Labor Day 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 even in the private copies.
The American Legion in November 1935 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 images of the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane always come back to me when this weekend arrives. It was one of the greatest tragedies in the history of this state and one that was entirely preventable.
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. That storm also killed over a hundred people in small rural county in Virginia (Nelson County) when flash flood hit that area in the mountains.
Hurricane Andrew which hit South Dade County in 1992 remains the third strongest US storm on record. The Labor Day Storm, Camile , Andrew and Michael are the only four storms to hit the US mainland at Category 5 intensity. Three of those storms made their first US landfall in Florida, with Michael’s rapid intensification resembling that of Camile (which originally forecast to hit the Florida Panhandle).
2017’s Hurricane Irma, which made its first Florida landfall at Cudjoe Key about 50 miles west of the Labor Day Hurricane was a Category 4 at the time.