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Plumage of Pomp: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935

by on November 5, 2012


The past Saturday, I was visiting the Florida Keys and took a bike tour of parts of Islamorada, a village which spans several islands. The meeting place for the tour was a memorial to the victims of the 1935 Labor Day hurricane located near mile marker 82 of U.S. Route 1. Our guide was very knowledgeable regarding the history of Islamorada and the Keys in general. However, much of the tour focused on the effects of the 1935 hurricane on the island and its residents.

Memorial to the victims of the 1935 Labor Day hurricane, and the meeting place of my bike tour

This hurricane was one of the strongest and most intense hurricanes to ever hit the U.S. Wind speeds were estimated to reach up to 200 miles per hour, and the storm resulted in the deaths of over 400 people. Our tour guide told us that people tied themselves to trees if they couldn’t find suitable shelter. Winds speeds were so high that some people suffered damage to their skin as a result.

Residents of Islamorada lost most everything. Houses were swept out to sea or left in shambles. Boats and other property were utterly destroyed. After the storm, the American Red Cross provided aid to Keys residents who had suffered the wrath of the storm. One of the ways the Red Cross assisted residents was by building new houses for them that were hurricane-proof, elevated above potential flood levels and built with concrete walls to withstand the wind of a hurricane. Many of these remain standing today, still occupied by residents or converted to businesses. We saw a number of these on our tour.

One of the remaining Red Cross houses, this one occupied by an art gallery

Learning about and seeing the role the Red Cross played in providing relief to Islamorada after the storm prompted me to check and see what we had in our Collection ANRC, Records of the American National Red Cross, relating to these relief efforts. In the series “Publications, 1909-2002″ (ARC Identifier 5756557) I found a pamphlet published by the Red Cross entitled “Hurricanes 1935″ (ARC Identifier 6124810).

Cover of the pamphlet

This pamphlet covers both the 1935 Labor Day hurricane and the 1935 Yankee hurricane. In describing the Labor Day hurricane as it was forming off the coast before making landfall, the pamphlet reads, “It is as though nature were drawing in her plumage of pomp in anticipation of onslaughts expected.” Onslaught it was. The pamphlet also discusses the building of hurricane-proof houses in the Keys after the Labor Day hurricane.

Page from the pamphlet regarding hurricane-proof houses

For these houses, as the pamphlet says, “Concrete was the solution.” Reinforced with steel rods, built into the coral rock foundation of the island, and fitted with cisterns to collect drinkable water, these houses provided their residents with “reasonable assurance” that they would be protected against future storms. In total, 29 of these houses were built for storm victims.

Image from the pamphlet of the hurricane-proof house under construction

Little did I realize that, while soaking up the sun in the Florida Keys, I would be thinking about history and what I might be able to find in the National Archives relating to what I had just learned on a bike tour.

Where have you been on vacation that you would like learn more about from the National Archives?


Comments

Judy Luis-Watson November 5, 2012 at 11:32 am

Great story, and great timing!

Stuart Culy November 5, 2012 at 3:07 pm

I recently read about that hurricane in “Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean.” That storm wrecked the railroad which had been built from the Florida mainland to Key West.

Rick Blondo November 14, 2012 at 10:33 am

Nice post, Jason. Stuart, while in grad school I did a research paper on Henry Flagler and his Florida East Coast Railway. After the hurricane the trackbed was repurposed to become an extension of U.S. Route 1 which was eventually replaced by a new highway causeway. The old highway was used in the filming of True Lies.

Regarding hurricanes and Key West, Heery International built the new high school in Key West which doubles as a regional storm shelter. Its bunker-like design will stand up to a category 5 hurricane. http://www.heery.com/portfolio/key-west-high-school.aspx

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