Losing Face: What Happens When Hurricanes Become Monsters

As Hurricane Rita intensifies and bellows a hellish roar at the humans in her path, I shudder for those on the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast who fail to heed her cry. With gusts of 215 miles an hour, sustained winds of 175 and a forecast for further deepening of the central pressure in her huge eye, this massive storm has become the 2005 Goliath to the 1935 Florida Keys’ David.

Several weeks ago, on a peaceful, warm, bright-sunshiny day, my wife and I drove for barely an hour from our home in Miami to enjoy lunch under a shady umbrella on the docks in Islamorada. Afterwards, we made a respectful sidetrip to neighboring Matecumbe to see the modest but striking Florida Keys Memorial. Fashioned from "keystone" (an oolitic limestone quarried in Key Largo), it sits with dignity alongside busy Highway U.S. 1 and holds in its crypt the bones and ashes of many of the 400-plus victims of the 1935 Labor Day Storm.

That day 70 years ago was fateful for the men who labored in the Florida Keys, veterans of World War I who had been plucked off the Depression Era streets of America by FDR to earn a few bucks by helping to complete the Overseas Highway from the Florida mainland to Key West.

There were not, of course, geosynchronous space satellites hovering as heavenly sentinels to warn the men that they were about to be confronted by the most powerful hurricane ever to hit the United States (we know the storm’s barometric-pressure reading only because one of the few islanders who survived had a barometer in his pocket when he climbed into a tree for refuge). Less than 24 hours before the storm hit, in fact, the Weather Bureau Office in Miami had posted a little-noticed Sunday warning that somewhere out there, in the Bahamas, a "tropical disturbance" was stirring.

It was not until noon the next day that locals in the Keys realized, because of their mariner’s folk wisdom, that not a mere disturbance but a really bad storm was about to blow in. As a result, a frantic telegraph message for evacuation help was transmitted to the Florida East Coast Railway in Miami, on the mainland.

The train that arrived eight hours later, at 8:20 p.m., to rescue the workers was worthless. The rain by then was cascading from tar-black skies with such ferocity that the conductor was unable to see the well-marked Islamorada train station just feet away from the tracks. Once the mistake was realized, the train backed up to the battered would-be passengers, and the FEC crew began pulling them aboard.

It was too late. At that instant, a 17-foot-high storm surge began to annihilate the island and others nearby in the chain, flipping the powerful train on its side and pushing 10 of its cars nearly 100 feet from the track.

Between the forces of a 200-mph wind and a streaming sea, corrugated metal roofs became guillotines, severing human heads and limbs, and pieces of lumber became lethal javelins. Men and women who had tied themselves and their children to trees and lightpoles were ripped away, with only their hands and feet remaining attached to the failed uprights as grim testimony to the rescuers who arrived much later. Other unrecognizable victims were so badly sandblasted that their clothes and very skin were sheared from their bodies; their unique faces were erased right to the bones and teeth.

Most human beings, houses, trees and every other living and inert thing above ground were battered, broken, ripped to pieces and swept into Florida Bay. To this day, seven decades later, there is not an inch of native top soil on Islamorada and its sister islands; they all were stripped and purged to their coral bedrock. "Indian Key," wrote Ernest Hemingway soon after the storm to his editor, Max Perkins, "was absolutely swept clean, not a blade of grass."

Rita’s little unnamed "brother" in 1935 took an estimated 408 lives, almost the entire population of the affected islands. Imagine what Rita will do to the Houston/Galveston area if its 5 million people do not evacuate before her arrival.