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Labor Day Hurricane, 1935

Buddies all around were shouting in panic, “Give me a hand, buddy. Save me. I’m drowning.” I fought hard to keep my head out of water and inch by inch managed to creep to higher ground.

House now breaking up. … I glanced at a barometer which read 26.98 inches, dropped it in water, and was blown outside into sea; got hung up in the fronds of a coconut tree and hung on for dear life.

The voices are now silent, but the limestone memorial on U.S. 1 in Florida’s Lower Matecumbe Key lets them echo through history. More than 400 people died in that late-summer maelstrom 79 years ago — a Category 5 storm, the strongest ever to make landfall in the United States. The 200-mph winds and a 20-foot surge destroyed everything — homes and businesses, streets and roads, Henry’s Flagler’s railroad, everything.

Hundreds of destitute World War I veterans employed on a construction project were living in flimsy, temporary housing on Windley and Lower Matecumbe keys. A train was sent from Miami to evacuate them; all 10 cars, filled with refugees, were swept off the tracks. “Scores of men, women and children who had thought themselves safe … found themselves trapped in water-filled coffins.”

Ernest Hemingway, in a letter to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, wrote: “Max, you can’t imagine it. Indian Key absolutely swept clean, not a blade of grass.”

The memorial stands at mile marker 82 on U.S. 1, where the local post office once stood. Unveiled in 1937, it contains a stone crypt holding the ashes of victims collected from makeshift funeral pyres. The quotes here are from Les Sandiford’s Last Train to Paradise (Three Rivers Press, 2002).

November 2014 issue