September 2, 2010 will be the 75th anniversary of the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, the most powerful hurricane to make landfall in the United States. The eye of the hurricane came ashore at Long Key, Florida on Labor Day Monday of 1935 with winds that probably exceeded 200 mph and a storm surge that may have reached 22 feet or more.
The official death toll of the storm was 408, but the actual toll could have been higher. Most of the victims were jobless World War I veterans who had been sent to the Florida Keys as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program to provide jobs during the Great Depression. The veterans were living in three makeshift work camps on the low-lying islands and were unprotected from the powerful storm. They were building a highway from Miami across the islands to Key West.
Keeping tabs on the unruly vets was difficult, and they often came and went without camp administrators being aware of their movements. So it was impossible to account for all of the vets after the hurricane. Some of the missing veterans may have left camp just before the storm without notifying camp officials; others undoubtedly were literally blown away by the hurricane and their bodies were never found.
Had the vets not been in the Keys, the Labor Day Hurricane would have been little more than a meteorological oddity – an extremely powerful hurricane that made landfall on islands that were sparsely populated in 1935. But their presence transformed this hurricane into a national tragedy. The vets were from all over the country, and their deaths made headlines across the U.S. The political fallout caused some headaches for the Roosevelt Administration as FDR was about to launch his campaign for his second term in 1936.
In 2002, National Geographic published my book, Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. A paperback edition was published in 2003. The book also was the basis for “Nature’s Fury: Storm of the Century,” a documentary that premiered on the History Channel in 2006.
I spent more than four years researching and writing the book, and in the process I compiled a detailed timeline of the events related to the storm. For the next six months, I’ll be using that timeline – as well as excerpts from my writing about the hurricane – to make regular postings about the events leading to the tragedy that occurred on Monday, September 2, 1935. Please check back from time to time as I commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.