This weekend, millions of anxious Floridians are awaiting the approach of Hurricane Irma. This is not the first major storm to hit the state, nor will it be the last. Though Irma is likely to cause billions of dollars in damage and leave many people temporarily homeless, people who live in hurricane-prone areas can at least be thankful that they now have a fairly reliable early warning system in place that can alert them to the approach of these deadly storms. This has not always been the case.
In fact, the first-recorded Category 5 hurricane to ever hit the United States was one such storm that struck Florida with very little warning in 1935. Known as the Labor Day Hurricane (storms weren’t given names back then), the mega-storm brought widespread destruction and death to the Florida Keys.
In the 1930s, meteorologists did not have satellite technology or weather tracking systems. The only way to know if a storm was coming was through communications with people on other islands in the Atlantic and from ships who spotted storms. The Labor Day Hurricane was not even detected until 5 days before it hit the Keys. Worsening the situation, experts at the time fully expected the storm to pass between Cuba and Key West, leaving the Florida islands relatively unscathed.
This was not to be. Unfortunately, at the time, hundreds of World War I veterans had been stationed on Key West in poorly constructed shacks. They were sent there to help build the island into the tourist destination it is today. These men were wholly unprepared to deal with a storm of this magnitude, which brought punishing 250 mph winds and a 15-foot storm surge with it.
There was a train that was set up to evacuate the veterans and other residents in case of a storm, but it kept getting delayed since no one thought the hurricane would hit the Keys. When its approach seemed inevitable, the rescue train was finally sent.
The train was too late to help. Though many people boarded it, the storm had already begun. As it neared the island of Islamorada, it got stuck for over an hour because a steel cable had blown across the tracks. Shortly after it started up again, it was blown off its tracks by winds and the storm surge. The only car left standing was the 160-ton locomotive engine. Many of the train’s passengers were killed.
Meanwhile, back on Key West, those residents and veterans who were left behind felt the full brunt of the storm’s power. People were killed by flying objects that were blown through the air by the wind. Others were drowned by the storm surge when they became trapped in buildings or washed out to sea. The winds were so harsh that some people were blown clear off the island itself.
Many people were outraged that the train had not come sooner. The government and contractors who were responsible for the operation of the evacuation train refused to accept responsibility for the deaths. An investigation quickly concluded that the deaths of the veterans was an “act of God.” Though many disagreed with this decision, it was never changed.
Over 400 people lost their lives in the Labor Day Hurricane. No doubt this number could have been much lower had the evacuation train arrived in a timely manner. Had our modern storm-tracking systems been available, it is possible that no one would have died at all.