Interview with Willie Drye: Katrina and the Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935


Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

Willie Drye is the author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic Books.

In your book you tell the story of the Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. It was deadly and killed some 400 people (most of them World War I veterans who were sent to the Florida Keys to work on a New Deal construction project). But hardly anybody remembers it. Why is that?

For starters, the storm struck a part of the country that was literally the ends of the earth in 1935. Outside of Key West, maybe 1,000 people lived on the Florida Keys at that time. William Johns, who was a reporter for the Miami Daily News at the time of the hurricane, noted that no one paid any attention to the Keys before the World War I vets were sent there in November 1934. So the Keys were part of the world that just didn't matter.

Also, the Roosevelt Administration and its political allies were very effective at steering attention away from the tragedy, starting with an "investigation" that Harry Hopkins's assistant, Aubrey Williams, conducted during a weekend trip to Florida soon after the hurricane. Williams interviewed a dozen people or so (the exact numbers are in the book) and concluded that the deaths were no one's fault and were caused by "an act of God." He then banged out a report to President Roosevelt that was picked up by the press, and although his "act of God" conclusion outraged a lot of people, it also started steering public attention away from the deaths.

The Veterans Administration caught much of the flack for the veterans' deaths, even though they had nothing to do with sending them to the islands. They sent their own investigator, David Kennamer, to Florida. Kennamer had a nemesis, however -- attorney John Abt, who was sent to Florida by the WPA to monitor Kennamer's work.

The investigation that Kennamer conducted was, in my opinion, a masterful job. He and the staff interviewed hundreds of survivors and officials under oath, and he compiled an exhaustive report with literally thousands of pages of supporting documents. He concluded that two administrators in Florida -- Ray Sheldon and Fred Ghent -- were primarily responsible because they waited too long to call for a train to get the vets out of harm's way. He also blamed several other administrators with the Florida Emergency Relief Administration, which was a branch of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (this was the agency that later became the WPA).But Kennamer's report was never made public. It so happened that Kennamer also was from a family of staunch Republicans in Alabama.

The final master stroke in making this tragedy go away was made by U.S. Rep. John Rankin, D-Miss., chairman of the Committee for World War Veterans' Legislation, who conducted a sham investigation as part of his committee's consideration of a bill to pay benefits to the families of the men killed in the hurricane. When I was working on the book, I hired attorney John McVee of New Bern, N.C. to examine transcripts of Rankin's hearings. McVee specializes in federal law. He gave me a detailed legal opinion of the way Rankin conducted the hearings. One phrase from the opinion McVee wrote still sticks in my mind: "Rankin clearly was very familiar with the rules of evidence because he abused them so skillfully."

Anyway, the report Rankin wrote after he concluded the hearings included one paragraph saying no one was at fault for the vets' deaths. Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers, R-Mass. and a member of Rankin's committee, wrote a scathing minority opinion accusing Rankin and the Democrats of a cover up, but the Republicans just didn't have the political muscle to make the scandal stick. After Rankin's hearings, the tragedy started fading from public consciousness.

After my book was published, I helped authors Paul Dickson and Thomas Allen with some of the research for their book, The Bonus Army: An American Epic. Paul told me he'd come across the memoirs of John Abt. Abt commented on the 1935 hurricane and vets' deaths in his memoirs. He said the VA was "full of Republicans who sought to ... embarrass the administration. He admitted that he and Rankin -- whom he didn't care for -- had "teamed up as allies to exonerate the government, in an episode of my life I look back on without pride." (From Advocate and Activist: Memoirs of an American Communist Lawyer, by John Abt with Michael Myerson, p. 50) It's ironic, of course, that Abt, who was secretly a member of the Communist Party at the time, worked with Rankin, who later became became the red-hating firebrand of the House Un-American Affairs Committee.

When I was doing research for my book, I did a sort of "seat of the pants" survey to try to get some idea of why this hurricane tragedy had been forgotten. I looked in the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature and found that something like four stories were written about the Labor Day hurricane of 1935. By comparison, there were about two dozen stories written about the hurricane of 1938 that struck Long Island and the Northeast. The 1938 hurricane was a powerful storm that killed hundreds. It was nowhere near the same intensity of the 1935 hurricane, however. But because it struck the Northeast, it was written about at the time and is still remembered.

I do want to add one more comment. I think President Roosevelt was one of our greatest presidents. But I also think he was one of the shrewdest politicians who has ever held the office. I didn't see any evidence that he personally ordered a cover up of the Keys hurricane tragedy. But I also think he was smart enough to have people around him who'd know what to do to make something like this go away without being told to do so.

Do you think people are likely to remember Katrina 100 years from now?

Goodness, I hope so. If Katrina is forgotten in 100 years, Americans will either be living in an age of astonishing ignorance or living under a very repressive government that has cut off their access to the past. Hurricane Katrina was a stunning natural disaster. One of the nation's largest cities has been rendered uninhabitable. I think it's very difficult to exaggerate the enormity of this event. On the other hand, as Robert Samuelson noted in his book, The Good Life and its Discontents, Americans "suffer an almost willful historic amnesia." Other monumental American tragedies have been forgotten. Probably the only reason the awful Galveston hurricane of 1900 is remembered is because of Erik Larson's fine book, Isaac's Storm.

I'm already seeing news reports saying that Hurricane Katrina is the worst hurricane tragedy since that event, and that's not accurate. The reporters seem unaware of the terrible hurricane of 1928 -- the most powerful storm on record at that time -- that blew across Florida's Lake Okeechobee and sent a wall of water through several small lakeside towns that killed at least 2,000 and probably more. Many of the victims were poor, black migrant workers working to harvest the bean crop. Some of the victims were buried in a mass grave near a little crossroads settlement called Port Mayaca; an undetermined number of the black victims were buried in a forgotten grave in West Palm Beach. Eliot Kleinberg has an excellent book about that tragedy, Black Cloud: The Great Florida Hurricane of 1928. So my point is that it's possible that Hurricane Katrina will be all but forgotten a century from now.

The country has been as alarmed by the slow response to Katrina as to Katrina itself. Did the slow response come as a surprise to you?

I was astonished. President Bush's father was seriously damaged politically when federal help didn't get to South Florida after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The Miami Herald had headlines such as "A Deepening Crisis" and "We Need Help." So it's very puzzling why the current President Bush didn't have help going into the Gulf Coast almost before the rain had stopped. I know rescue efforts were hampered by the flooding in New Orleans and the prolonged high winds even after Katrina's eye departed. But still ...

I'm sure that in the coming weeks and months we will see a better side of American compassion. I know it's there. My wife and I rode out Hurricane Isabel two years ago when it tore through North Carolina. Here in Plymouth, we were knocked back into the nineteenth century for a week or so. People helped each other compulsively. There was no air conditioning, no electricity, I got very tired of cold showers and peanut butter sandwiches. But there also was something reassuring about it. Two neighbors -- one black, the other Lebanese -- that I hadn't troubled myself to meet came out while the storm was still raging at its worst and helped me get a piece of plywood over a window that had blown out. I think the vast majority of people have an instinctive need to help in times of trouble. I don't understand sometimes why we can't make better use of that.

Should we have been better prepared?

Yes, absolutely beyond question. For years, knowledgeable and credible people have been warning that New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen. On June 29 of this year, Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center's Tropical Prediction Center, told a congressional subcommittee on disaster prevention and prediction that "we are more vulnerable to a hurricane catastrophe today than at any time in our nation's history." He also told the committee that, even with all the improvements in hurricane tracking and forecasting, "we still cannot provide sufficient lead time to evacuate particularly vulnerable areas like the Florida Keys and New Orleans." How much more clear can a warning be?

Of course, the pervasive orneriness of human nature also comes into play here. You can warn people that danger's coming, but you can't make them get out of the way. Billy Wagner, the emergency management director for Monroe County (Florida Keys) has a great one-liner about the difficulty of his job, which is trying to prevent another catastrophe such as the 1935 hurricane. He says something to the effect that he has to deal with human nature and Mother Nature, and he can't control either of them.

Do you think President Bush has been slow to take charge this week, as some have argued?

It certainly appears that way, and for him, perception is everything. And he's not the first president to suffer from such a damaging impression. As Paul Dickson and Thomas Allen write in their book, many of the vets who ended up on the Keys took part in the so-called Bonus March of 1932, when thousands of them came to Washington, D.C. to lobby for early payment of a bonus they'd been promised as a reward for their military service. President Hoover opposed the early payment, Congress voted it down, and many of the vets left town.

But a determined group stayed on until President Hoover ordered General Douglas MacArthur to evict them from federal property. MacArthur, however, decided a revolution was about to erupt and chased the vets out of the District. Photos were published on the front pages of newspapers across the nation showing troops chasing middle-aged veterans out of the nation's capital, and it was a public relations disaster for Hoover. Franklin Roosevelt thought that this event cinched the 1932 election for him.

Some, like David Brooks, have noted that major events like Katrina can bring to the surface underlying social tensions. Did the hurricane of 1935 do so?

To some extent, yes, but nothing like what Katrina apparently has revealed. The veterans who were sent to the Keys were a sad and strange collection of men. Some of them were deeply troubled. The Washington Post described vets at a similar work camp in South Carolina as "shell shocked, whiskey shocked and depression shocked," and many of them had been unable to settle into a productive life after their service in World War I. They became a great annoyance to some people when they went to Washington to seek early payment of the so-called bonus.

They started coming back to Washington after FDR took office. Roosevelt also opposed early payment of the bonus, but knew he couldn't afford to have something happen such as what had happened to Hoover. So their solution was to send the vets to the Keys to build the highway. So the social tension didn't exactly erupt after the hurricane, but it certainly put these men in its path.

Have you been shocked by the reports of looting and lawlessness? Was there looting and lawlessness after the 1935 hurricane (or after others)?

I was not shocked that there was looting and lawlessness. Unfortunately, that always happens after such a disaster. I was shocked by the reported viciousness of some of the lawlessness.

There was some looting after the 1935 hurricane, but nothing remotely resembling what's happened in New Orleans. In one incident, some looters knocked a National Guard soldier unconscious. The looters exchanged a few shots with other soldiers as they escaped in a boat. In an earlier time, police and public officials dealt with looting in ways that we wouldn't tolerate today. After the 1928 hurricane, police in Martin County, Florida (which was hard-hit by the storm) issued a warning that any adult male seen on the streets who wasn't going to or from work or helping with the relief effort would be immediately arrested.

Katrina struck the same week as the Great Labor Day Hurricane. Has the timing struck you as eerie or mere coincidence?

Yes, I guess it does seem eerie, in a way. But then, this is the time of year that's the peak of hurricane season, and I guess I'd have been surprised if there wasn't a powerful storm roaming around out there somewhere.

What does strike me as eerie is the succession of very powerful hurricanes that have blasted the Gulf Coast in the past year. It's truly been a Murderers' Row of storms -- Hurricane Charley, Hurricane Ivan, Hurricane Dennis, and now Hurricane Katrina. Not to mention the tropical storms that also have struck there. They weren't as powerful as the hurricanes, but they caused considerable damage.

It saddens me that this part of the country is taking such a beating. I spent a lot of time in Pensacola when I lived in Florida. It's a lovely old city. I talked to a county commissioner there after Hurricane Ivan, and I asked her about familiar landmarks. Most of them were gone, and she told me Pensacola doesn't look the same as it did when I was visiting there. I also visited Mobile, Alabama a few times, and I'm sure some of the places I enjoyed there -- such as a great little mom-and-pop restaurant that served wonderful red beans and rice -- probably are gone now.

How fast did relief arrive after the Hurricaine of '35? [Editor: Question added 9-6-05.]

There was some confusion during the first couple of days in the rescue effort after the 1935 hurricane. Representatives of several agencies were claiming they were in charge of the effort, and orders were being given and countermanded and there was a lot of tension. It was finally resolved when Florida Gov. David Sholtz flew from Tallahassee to Miami, called a midnight meeting of representatives of all agencies involved at the McAllister Hotel, and told them he was in charge and basically dared anyone to challenge him.

There are a couple of major differences, of course, between the '35 aftermath and the Katrina aftermath -- the devastated area was much smaller and there were fewer victims, and people got there much quicker, so even though it may not have been well organized, at least people were getting help. The Coast Guard was flying Search and Rescue missions as soon as the wind died down enough for them to get planes into the air, and the mayor of Homestead led a rescue party into the Keys before the wind had even died down.


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    Frederick Thomas - 9/6/2005

    The worst hurricaine to ever strike the US mainland makes this one look like nothing by comparison. It was named Camille, and the President was Richard M. Nixon.

    It came ashore 50 miles east of New Orleans, with a bar of 26.85, the lowest recorded in a hurricaine on landfall. It had the highest storm surge, over 30 feet, which inundated communities hundreds of miles inland.

    New Orleans was smitten, but Bay St Louis endured the eye, and was completed obliterated. No building was left standing, and the pieces of structures were found many miles inland, pushed by winds like those of a tornado.

    At the Alabama test facility, which had a blockhouse for rocket tests, the anerometer recorded winds in excess of 230 mph before it was destroyed. Cars were blown through the air like toys, and it continued for hours and hours, until the land was scoured clear of most structures and drowned.

    The difference was at the state and local level. Governor Thompson had the entire state police force on the job beforehand, and the city was prepared. The New Orleans police were actually on duty, unlike recently when they ran for their lives like rats.

    Evacuation was effective, as it was enforced by police. Schoolbuses, which were left in their lots to be destroyed by Katrina, were an important part of the evac plan.

    Nixon contributed only two US battalions, which was the least important component, as it should be. The local and state response was like that of New York to 9/11. It was as effective as the recent local response was ineffective.

    To find something which sheds light on what happened in 2005, you do not need to go back to FIDDER. Tricky Dick has a much more interesting history, and a much more effective result.