How FDR Handled the Fallout from the Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935
Mr. Drye is the author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic Books.
As the sun climbed above the hills of the Hudson River Valley on Sunday, Sept. 1, 1935, a special train carrying President Franklin D. Roosevelt rolled to a stop at the station at Highland.
Congress had recently ended its longest session in more than a decade and the president had finally escaped the stifling summer heat of Washington, D.C. He was looking forward to spending Labor Day at Springwood, his home overlooking the Hudson River in Hyde Park.
FDR planned to combine pleasure and business during an extended stay. The president was unusually skilled at handling the press, and a softball game pitting administration officials against White House correspondents was planned on the lawn of his home on Wednesday, Sept. 4.
Roosevelt also would be busy with politics, however. An election year was only a few months away, and the president intended to work on a series of speeches that would lay the groundwork for his announcement that he would run for a second term in 1936.
FDR and his strategists knew they'd be facing opposition from both sides of the political spectrum. Many business leaders were weary of New Deal regulations and wanted a more conservative, business-oriented president. Others were convinced that Roosevelt's policies hadn't done enough to pull the nation out of the lingering Depression and wanted a more radical shift to the left.
But as Roosevelt was helped into the waiting car that would take him across the Hudson to his home, another potentially serious political problem was brewing for him 1,500 miles away in the warm waters of the Straits of Florida. There, a hurricane was rapidly strengthening as it drifted slowly toward the Florida Keys, where hundreds of World War I veterans were working on a New Deal construction project.
It was the time of year when hurricanes usually form in that part of the world. But there was something especially sinister about this storm. In 36 hours it would become the strongest hurricane to ever strike the U.S. Then it would take dead aim at the unprotected veterans on the slender, low-lying islands.
The hurricane also set off a controversy that quietly reverberated for months through the corridors of power in Washington. But Roosevelt Administration officials worked diligently to keep the controversy out of public view and make sure Republicans couldn't use it against them in the coming campaign.
The vets were sent to the islands in a move that combined compassion with political expediency. Soon after FDR took office in 1933, jobless veterans began assembling in Washington hoping to persuade him and Congress to immediately pay them a bonus for their wartime service that they were scheduled to receive in 1945. Roosevelt opposed early payment but wanted to help the desperately needy vets. And he also wanted them out of the capital and off the front pages of the Washington Post and New York Times.
The solution was to send the veterans to the Keys in November 1934 to build a highway intended to help restore Key West's Depression-shattered economy. The men were paid $30 a month plus food, and were housed in three beachfront work camps.
Roosevelt Administration officials also put the credibility and prestige of the New Deal on the line when they announced that the effort to revitalize Key West would demonstrate the effectiveness of the president's recovery programs.
Officials in charge of the camps knew the Keys were vulnerable to hurricanes. But as the storm strengthened during the Labor Day weekend, the administrators ignored warnings to get the men off the islands. Instead of ordering a special train from Miami to evacuate the veterans, camp supervisors waited until they knew for certain that the hurricane would strike the islands.
When they finally ordered a train, it was too late. The hurricane came ashore in the Keys during the evening of Monday, Sept. 2, 1935 with 200 mph winds and an 18-foot storm surge that overturned the train before the men could get aboard. About 265 veterans were killed, as well as more than 140 residents.
It would be several days, however, before the public knew the full magnitude of the tragedy. The Washington Post reported in its Sept. 3 edition that the hurricane had caused only"minor damage" in Florida.
But the hurricane had actually laid waste to a 40-mile stretch of the islands from Key Largo south, destroying bridges and phone lines and completely cutting off the survivors from the outside world. Meanwhile, the nation's attention was focused on a passenger ship with almost 400 people aboard that had been thrown onto a reef off the Keys. The ship weathered the hurricane with no loss of life.
Rainfall dampened Roosevelt's holiday festivities in Hyde Park, but the president attended a Labor Day luncheon and later visited the home of Moses Smith, a Duchess County farmer. FDR chatted with neighbors on the porch of Smith's modest home.
But when casualty reports from the Keys started reaching the temporary office set up by Steve Early, one of FDR's secretaries, in nearby Poughkeepsie, administration officials realized they had a serious problem on their hands.
Roosevelt's advisors were horrified to learn Wednesday, Sept. 4 that hundreds of veterans had been killed. When word of the slaughter reached FDR in Hyde Park, he ordered an immediate investigation to determine whether anyone in his administration was responsible for the deaths. He also ordered that the federal government do everything possible to help the survivors.
Within hours, high-ranking officials - including a public relations specialist - were scurrying to Florida and an old fashioned blame-a-thon erupted in Washington. Harry Hopkins, director of the Work Projects Administration and FDR's closest advisor, said advisories from the U.S. Weather Bureau hadn't been clear about the danger to the Keys, but Weather Bureau officials pointed out that the advisories had been accurate enough to allow others who took them seriously to safely avoid the hurricane.
Roosevelt had little to say publicly about the tragedy. When a reporter mentioned the hurricane deaths at a news conference in Hyde Park a few days after the storm, the president made a brief comment and then steered the conversation to another topic. His advisors also were careful about making any permanent record of the administration's response. Early - who often made references to natural disasters in a White House diary he kept - made no mention of the hurricane in writing.
Behind the scenes, however, a lot was happening. Hopkins arrived in Hyde Park on Friday, Sept. 6 to discuss the aftermath of the hurricane. In Florida, there was tension as investigators arrived.
"Behind it all was 'politics' - veterans had been killed, president's representatives were coming, governor's retinue already on the ground," said John Teets, a Red Cross representative helping with the relief effort."There were political aspects. Investigations. Telegrams were piling in from everywhere, relatives inquiring about relatives."
Some of those telegrams and letters were from furious former servicemen. A.M. Coffin of Cisco, Tex. said in a letter to Roosevelt that he'd spoken with many prominent Texans who were infuriated that the vets"were left to die like rats in a trap." Clarence Barringer of Newark, Ohio addressed the envelope of his angry letter to the"Veterans Extermination Bureau" in Washington, D.C. and mailed it.
Barringer's letter found its way to the Veterans Administration. Officials there also were upset.
Roosevelt's political advisors were becoming uneasier by the day, and a Sept. 7 editorial in the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk, Va. summed up their fears when it commented,"in the still unsettled question of why the evacuation of the veterans was delayed, there is the possibility of a national scandal." The Miami Herald predicted that the government's failure to protect the vets"may become a vital issue in next year's presidential election."
But on Sunday, Sept. 8 Aubrey Williams, the assistant director of the WPA who'd been sent to Florida to investigate the deaths, sent a report to FDR at Hyde Park saying federal officials were blameless and the vets' deaths were due to"an act of God."
Williams's claim that a divine act killed the veterans infuriated the Miami Ministerial Association and many other Americans, and the VA sent its own investigator to Florida to look into the deaths. But when FDR left Springwood in late September for a cross-country tour, the furor was subsiding. Although Republican political operatives were still hoping the incident would blow up in Roosevelt's face, the Washington Post and New York Times lost interest in the affair and completely ignored the VA's investigation, which concluded in October 1935 that federal officials were, in fact, at fault.
The VA's report on the veterans' deaths - written by investigator David Kennamer - wasn't released to the public, but a copy was given to Rep. John Rankin, a Democrat from Mississippi who'd exchanged several political favors with Roosevelt and was on FDR's reelection campaign committee. Rankin also was chairman of the House Committee on World War Veterans Legislation. When a bill was introduced in early 1936 to compensate the families of the vets killed in the hurricane, Rankin saw an opportunity to erase this political liability once and for all.
The bill went to Rankin's committee for study and a recommendation. Rankin announced to reporters that he was going to hold hearings to conclusively determine whether federal officials were to blame for the veterans' deaths. His hearings dragged on for months, but were actually a carefully staged sham. Rankin didn't even bother to take testimony from Kennamer, who knew more than anyone about what had happened in the Keys during the Labor Day weekend.
In May 1936 Rankin's committee recommended that the bill compensating the victims' families be passed. The recommendation included one paragraph saying that federal officials were not responsible for the tragedy.
Rankin's orchestrated investigation left Republicans with no political ammunition to use against FDR, and the vets' deaths faded from public consciousness.
This article was first published in 2003 by Hudsonian Magazine Online and is reprinted with permisson.
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