In early September 1935, Editor Paul Jeans of the Miami Beach Daily Tribune sat on a story that had all the features a tabloid newspaper could wish for: tales of tragedy and bravery, hints of scandal in high government circles, gruesome photographs. The most powerful hurricane in United States history had assaulted the Florida Keys on Labour Day, leaving at least 400 dead, many of whom were World War I veterans working on a federally sponsored project to build a road from Miami to Key West.
Nearly seventy years have passed, but the tale has grown in stature, enhanced by the events that unfolded in the months following the storm. In Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, author Willie Drye takes us through those events, showing us that the hurricane and its devastation provide but one stream of a story often passed by in American history books: the plight of the Bonus Marchers during the depression years.
Drye's narrative begins by setting the stage with a view of Florida Keys of the 1930s, backdrop for the tragedy that will unfold on that fateful day in September. The story then delves into the political situation that sent the Bonus Marchers, veterans of the first world war who sought early payment of a stipend promised by Congress, to a federal works project in the Florida Keys.
The author details how the economic crises of the Depression and political expediency thrust events full-force into a collision with perhaps the most powerful hurricanes to strike the continental US. When the Marcher's work camp is obliterated by the hurricane — packing 200-mph winds and pushing a storm surge that topped 20 feet — fingers began pointing in search of who was to blame. The investigations in the wake of the tragedy spawned a far-reaching political storm of acrimony and controversy that touched the US Weather Bureau, the Veterans Administration and the Office of the President and threatened the reelection of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Told from the viewpoints of veterans and local residents who survived the storm, Federal Emergency Relief Administration employees, and governmental officials, Storm of the Century is a vivid account of the storm's rampage accompanied by fascinating revelations about how federal administrators ignored early hurricane warnings and why supporters of Roosevelt were deeply concerned about its effect on the election of 1936.
I found Storm of the Century a very interesting read, as much for the human story of blunders and government dealings that compounded this tragedy as for the weather details of the storm. Drye wisely shies away from deep scientific descriptions of the storm, reporting it much as a journalist would, given the know facts of the storm, and concentrates on the human story.
I was especially pleased, however, with the final chapter "Next Time It'll Be Worse" that looks insightfully at the likelihood of a recurrence of certain aspects of this tragedy. One day, a powerful hurricane will again roll directly over the Florida Keys, and the potential for staggering loss of life is even greater than seven decades ago. I have no doubt that should such a tragedy happen, there will be investigations and allegations far exceeding those of 1935.
Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 by Willie Drye is a history book well-worth reading on many levels, and one that will surely make you think of what may come. I recommend it highly.
Keith C. Heidorn, PhD
THE WEATHER DOCTOR
August 1, 2002