Thursday, September 09, 2004

Ivan Aims for the Keys

The Florida Keys get lucky with hurricanes. When you look at a map, they dangle right down into the middle of the hurricane web. Yet they rarely take a direct hit. Charley originally was supposed to hit them, but at the last minute it took a surveyor's hiccup-type detour around Key West.

When Luke and I were down on Conch Key in 2002, people there told us that they felt lucky when it came to hurricanes. Enough Charley experiences will make you feel that way. On the other hand, you have to feel lucky to tempt fate like they do, living on those little strips of limestone and mud in the middle of the fickle green sea.

When the luck runs out on the Keys, its disaster. I realized that while driving back and forth on A1A that summer, when we'd pass the memorial to the victims of the Labor Day hurricane of 1935.

That Upper Keys hurricane killed at least 408 people (some say 423) and ranks as one of the ten deadliest storms in U.S. history. The Keys were relatively uninhabited then, which was about the only thing that kept it from topping the Galveston storm as the deadliest. At well over Category 5, the Labor Day hurricane was the strongest storm to hit the U.S. in the 20th century, according to the National Hurricane Center.

With a storm surge of perhaps 20 feet, the hurricane literally scoured the islands. The highest elevation in the entire chain is Windley Key, 18 feet above sea level.

There's a gripping account of the storm published here.

After eight o'clock, J. A. Duncan, the keeper at Alligator Reef Light, who had been clutching the rail of the lower platform to steady himself, caught the gleam of light on a black mass of water looming over. He jumped for the ladder and held on as tons of salt water crashed over him. 'Ninety feet high,' he said afterward. It was the nearly twenty-foot hurricane wave. The lighthouse men clung all night halfway up to the light itself, the cold iron jarring in their scalded fists. Wind or spray or both shattered the 3/8-inch glass around the light, and the lenses themselves. One of the sections of the lens was carried six or eight miles away and picked up on the beach unbroken.

The mounded wave reared across The Hawk Channel. The hurricane smashed down on a narrow ten miles of Keys from Tavernier to Key Vaca. The wind was flung like knives, 150 to 200 miles an hour with unbelievable gusts at nearly 250 miles that took everything. The people in the small houses saw black water bubble up over floor boards as roofs were sliced off and chaos crashed down on them. People hung on as they could, clutching children, heaping pillows over children in floating beds as houses tilted and spun off their foundations. Captain Parker's house with his wife and ten children, roofless, was swept south by the northeast wind into the welter of sea.

Matecumbe Key took a direct hit and was denuded of trees and buildings. "You went wherever the waves pushed you and wherever the winds pushed you," a survivor, 17 at the time, said. He lost his mother and three sisters. "It was so dark, you couldn't see what was going on and maybe that was good."

The waves destroyed the railroad that connected the Keys to the mainland. Among the dead were 259 World War I veterans living in three federal rehabilitation camps.

Ernest Hemingway was one of those who went to help look for survivors. "We located 69 bodies where no one had been able to get in," he wrote back to his editor. "Indian Key was absolutely swept clean, not a blade of grass. We made five trips with provisions for survivors to different places but nothing but dead men to eat the grub."

With so many dead and no place to bury them, the rescuers simply stacked up the bodies and burned them.