Hurricane Isabel—One of Strongest to Hit U.S.?

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Something happened to this storm when it reached the warm waters of the Straits of Florida, however. In a mere 36 hours, this hurricane's winds exploded. When the storm smashed into the Keys on the evening of September 2, 1935, its strongest winds probably exceeded 200 miles per hour (320 kilometers per hour), and it inundated the low-lying islands with a storm surge of perhaps 22 feet (6.7 meters).

The Keys were sparsely populated in those days, but about 400 wretchedly unlucky men took the full force of this awful hurricane when it came ashore. They were World War I veterans working on a Depression-era New Deal highway construction project in the Upper Keys. They were housed in flimsy oceanfront work camps only a couple of feet above sea level, and the men in charge of the camps waited until too late to call for a train to get the vets off the islands. There was almost nothing between them and the unrestrained fury of this cataclysmic hurricane. When it was over, about 260 of the vets were dead, along with at least 150 Keys residents who'd been in the hurricane's path.

The storm also performed astonishing feats of strength. As it approached the Keys, its fearsome winds shoved the ocean about a quarter-mile (400 meters) offshore from Lower Matecumbe Key, held it there until the hurricane's eye had passed and the winds changed direction, and then hurled the water back at the island in the form of a roaring white-foamed mountain of water that completely covered the key and swept away dozens of vets. The hurricane's storm surge crashed into the would-be rescue train at Islamorada, Florida with such force that cars weighing 100 tons were lifted off the tracks like children's toys. And it pitched an ocean liner carrying almost 400 people onto a reef off Key Largo.

The storm made headlines across the United States for a few days, and the deaths of the luckless veterans made the hurricane a truly national tragedy. But the Florida Keys were remote and insignificant in 1935 and the veterans were unimportant to most of the nation, and the hurricane quickly faded from public consciousness.

A handful of old-timers in the Keys still have vivid memories of that awful Labor Day. They shake their head in rueful disbelief when they hear newcomers to the islands say they'd like to see a hurricane. They heard the doomed vets say the same thing 68 years ago.

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

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