07 October 2004

Stormy Weather

Back when I was looking at the reviews for Scotti’s Sudden Sea, about the Hurricane of 1938 (see “There Are Bricks Flying By”), I noted another hurricane book, Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, and remarked that the excerpt on Amazon.com was quite good. Well, Tuesday at Kudzu, the remaindered book store, along with Enright’s classic The Saturdays and a book about American regional language differences, I found a copy.

If you watch documentaries about hurricanes, as we usually end up doing, you find several ubiquitous notables along with the 1938 disaster. There is of course the killer 1900 storm that hit Galveston, Texas, vividly reproduced in Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm. There’s the 1926 hurricane on the East Coast of Florida that destroyed the finances of several businessmen building tourist accommodations in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale as well as property. (Ironically, one of these men recovered enough capital to sink all his cash into building oceanfront homes again. On the southern coast of New England in 1938.) More modern storms, such as Hurricanes Camille and Andrew, are also included.

And then there’s the 1935 storm, which struck the Florida Keys with howling force and basically destroyed the old way of life among the “Conches,” as the residents were known.

The facet that makes the 1935 event different from the others is the presence in the Keys of the workers building the highway that now connects Key West to mainland Florida. These men were United States military veterans, and they were there basically because there were no jobs for them anywhere else (and, some say, to get rid of them).

Many of these men had been in the Bonus March of 1932. There are many different “takes” on the Bonus March--President Hoover and many other Government officials apparently truly did believe that what were left of the Bonus Marchers were simply troublemakers, thieves and Communists--but all the histories will tell you that General MacArthur’s high-handed and cruel treatment of them was unfair, whether they were mad radicals or not. The day MacArthur burned out the Bonus Marchers and drove them away from town with tanks and mounted troups, Franklin Roosevelt knew he had won the upcoming election.

The Roosevelt folks will tell you he was trying to do the best for these desperate men when he sent large numbers of them down to Florida to work on the road project. They would have food, shelter, and a job. Detractors say Roosevelt shipped them there so they wouldn’t be near Washington. Either way, the men got a raw deal: the camps they were placed in were dirty, they were inadequately housed and not protected from the hordes of mosquitoes that plague that part of the country, and most of the men overseeing the project had no knowledge of hurricanes or how fast they could move and ignored the locals’ warnings of the possible force of the storm.

From all accounts the men at these camps weren’t the best folks in the world. Many of them had come back from the war with what we would call today “post-traumatic stress syndrome” but back then was known more vividly as “shell shock.” They were belligerent, nasty, and tended to get roaring drunk on payday, partially because the camps were so bleak there was nothing else for them to do. But however badly they behaved, they didn’t deserve the offhand treatment they received—and the fate in store from them as the hurricane struck.

Author Willie Drye doesn’t have quite the narrative strengths of Larson, Scotti, or Everett Allen (A Wind to Shake the World), but the story is still quite compelling and is an excellent portrait of the old way of life in Florida and the hardships of the time.

Synopsis of Storm of the Century on Amazon.com.

1926 Hurricane

American Experience: MacArthur and the Bonus March

Bonus March information

The Bonus March as written by an honors student

Herbert Hoover's take on the Bonus Marchers

No comments: