Hemingway's Hurricane: The Great Florida Keys Storm of 1935.
Phil Scott's Hemingway's Hurricane is a nonfiction account of the Category 5 storm that struck the Florida Keys on Labor Day weekend in 1935, traumatizing the Middle Keys, killing hundreds, and prompting Hemingway's savage account in The New Masses--"Who Murdered the Vets?"
Scott's thoroughly researched book follows the beginnings of the 1935 hurricane from the first Weather Service bulletins from the Atlantic to the reports of Pan Am pilots as they flew past the storm. Using archived records, Scott explains the formation of the hurricane from its unusual beginnings in the Antilles to its destructive path through Florida's Middle Keys.
As the storm began to take shape, approximately 700 World War I veterans were living in three Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) camps in the Keys, helping to build an Overseas Highway bridging the islands from the mainland to Key West. The highway followed along the path of Henry Flagler's Railroad, often considered the Eighth Wonder of the World because of its many bridges spanning the sea between the low-lying islands. The highway project was a Depression Era effort to employ some of the thousands of out-of-work veterans who made up the "Bonus Army" that had marched in protest on Washington, D.C. in 1932. Less than a year after the hurricane, similar FERA camps and projects would develop into the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
Harry Hopkins, who would head WPA for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was director of the FERA, and had a plan for hurricane season. It was simple. As a hurricane approached, a train from Flagler's Railroad would come from Miami and evacuate the workers. The plan became complicated, Scott shows, when human egos and ignorance became involved.
While weather-forecasting technologies available today--Doppler radar and satellite imaging are two examples--could not have been imagined in 1935, there were signs from nature that the hurricane was strengthening and approaching the Keys. Locals in Key West warned Federal Emergency Relief Administration officials, but their warnings went unheeded. At the camps, bosses and workers noticed the mass migration of crabs as they crossed overland from the Atlantic side of the island chain to the Gulf side. They also witnessed large schools of tarpon swimming from the Atlantic to Gulf waters. When told these were warning signs of the coming storm, FERA officials scoffed.
Ignorant of the hurricane's path and developing strength, and confident that a train could arrive in time to assist all of the workers and their families in an evacuation, FERA officials made many blunders as the storm approached the Keys. To prevent the escape of panicking workers, bosses confiscated keys to the many cars and flatbed trucks that could have evacuated them to Miami. As the storm roared toward the Middle Keys, a unit of the National Guard was stationed outside the camp near Tavernier to keep veterans from leaving.
Miscommunications between FERA and Flagler's Railroad were monumental. FERRA officials thought the train was prepared to move on a moment's notice, but railroad officials demanded a $300 fee before they would even prepare the train. No one from FERA requested a detailed estimate of time needed to reach the camps, or the railroad's plan for doing so. Most of the details were worked out on the phone between Tampa and Miami, as the hurricane rapidly spun towards the camps.
Flagler's evacuation train did not arrive until late in the afternoon on 2 September, just as the blunt force of the hurricane hit the Middle Keys, tearing a path through poorly built wooden structures including hotels, a hospital, restaurants, FERA camps, and the homes of local residents. Hurricane winds stuck with such force that the rescue train was derailed. Railroad tracks were ripped from their beds and blown into the mangrove swamps. Windswept storm tides flooded much of the area, bring with it added death and destruction.
Scott's horrific report on the deaths of hundreds of men, women, and children is well-documented with archival material, news accounts, and Hemingway's writings. The next day was still stormy and no help arrived to assist the injured and those that miraculously survived the horror. On 4 September, some of the first rescuers arrived--civilian firemen from the Florida City area and locals with boats. Soon after, forty Florida National Guardsmen arrived, many of them later accused of looting. The death toll was so high, and the corpses had lain in the mangroves for so long, that Florida Governor David Schlotz would eventually order the cremation of the bodies for health reasons.
Scott's interpretation of reports from FERA and of archived interviews with survivors, both FERA officials and veterans, helps put the story in perspective. He also draws on Hemingway's writings, including his 17 September 1935 piece in New Masses, "Who Murdered the Vets?" Nor was there any shortage of print news coverage in 1935. The New York Times, two Miami papers, Time magazine, and national wire services all reported the devastation. Yet, with a little maneuvering by the government, the story soon became the stranding of the luxury steamship Dixie and its wealthy passengers, while the deaths of the veterans in FERA camps became non-news.
"Veterans' organizations demanded federal inquiries, but the death and destruction at the camps were finally deemed an "act of God." FERA officials blamed the storm for the many things they either didn't do or refused to do until it was too late.
While Scott's research shows countless examples of bureaucratic blundering, it also documents the courage of the survivors, some severely injured, and of numerous Keys residents. As with most disasters, when governments move too slowly, common men and women rise up to face the challenge of survival.
Hemingway's Hurricane: The Great Florida Keys Storm of 1935 is well worth reading. Its historical aspects are well documented and presented succinctly. Scott documents the stories of both the workers and officials. His writing is smooth and his story interesting and chilling.
The book is made even more compelling by our own recent memories of Hurricane Katrina, when the world was given a glimpse of the government's non-preparedness both before and after Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. It's impossible to read about the 1935 hurricane without thinking, for instance, of the school buses sitting idle outside New Orleans and the residents trapped in the Super Dome. Hemingway's Hurricane makes it all too clear that in the seventy-plus years since the 1935 storm, federal and state governments have learned little about hurricane preparedness, especially when it concerns the welfare of the working-class poor.
I have worked in the City of Key West's Emergency Management Center through four years of hurricanes and threats of hurricanes. I sat and listened as then Florida Governor Jeb Bush responded coldly to the city's cry for help as we struggled to recover from Hurricane Wilma, which flooded more than 40 percent of Key West housing. It saddens and frightens me that my experience, limited as it is, indicates that government has not learned from hurricane history. We all know what happens to those who cannot remember their history.
Key West, Florida