April 1935: Administrator seeks hurricane protection for veterans working in Florida Keys

This post is the latest in a series describing the events leading up to the tragedy of the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.

By mid-April 1935, veterans work camps administrator Fred Ghent was trying to provide hurricane protection for the 600 or so World War I vets building a highway in the Florida Keys as part of a New Deal construction project.

Ghent had lived in Florida since 1925 and was well aware of the death and devastation hurricanes can inflict. Miami had been nearly destroyed in September 1926 by what was then the most powerful hurricane on record. In 1928, an even more powerful storm came ashore at Palm Beach, roared across the Everglades, and shoved a deadly flood out of Lake Okeechobee that killed at least 3,000.

Ghent took over as the administrator in Florida for the federally sponsored work program for veterans on April 1, 1935. On April 9, he sent a letter to Joseph Hyde Pratt, a regional supervisor for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration in Atlanta. The start of hurricane season on June 1 was less than two months away, and Ghent knew he had to come up with some way to protect the men living in three work camps on the low-lying Keys.

"We do know . . . that this area is subject to hurricanes, and in view of this knowledge, it is our duty to every man employed on the keys, in connection with this program, to furnish a safe refuge during the storm," Ghent wrote.

Ghent realized the men under his supervision could not stay on the islands if a hurricane came their way. The men were living in small, poorly constructed shacks on the beach, only a foot or two at most above sea level. The shacks wouldn't stand up to even a minimal hurricane.

Soon after he became administrator, Ghent proposed building a large, well-constructed hurricane shelter for the men in the Keys. But that plan was dropped because it was too expensive.

The only alternative was to move the men if a hurricane came their way. But that presented a different set of challenges. Drunkenness was a constant problem among the vets, and Ghent knew the men would be very difficult to control if they were moved even briefly away from the work camps.

"The chief source of all the trouble amongst the veterans seems to be caused by liquor," Lieutenant Colonel M.R. Woodward of the Florida National Guard noted in a memo he wrote on April 8, 1935. National Guard troops had been stationed near the work camps since March 1 after the veterans went on strike demanding better working conditions and improved sanitation in their camps.

But even armed soldiers weren't enough to keep the determined veterans from getting drunk.

"One of the main functions of the Guard is to keep out all illegal shipments of liquor," Woodward wrote. "The veterans resort to drinking shoe polish, hair tonic and other fluids that contain alcohol; this creates a very bad condition when men become intoxicated on these drinks."

Ghent knew that no towns would want the drunken, brawling veterans in their midst during a storm. But he knew he had to do something. He would spend the rest of the summer trying to devise a plan.

NOTE: The map at the top of this post, published in the Miami Daily News in 1935, shows the route of the highway being built by World War I veterans in the Florida Keys.


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