December 05, 2005

Hemingway's Hurricane

Just finished Phil Scott's Hemingway's Hurricane about the 1935 storm that killed some 250 WWI veterans at work camps in the Florida Keys.

The Keys lie barely above sea level, and the scenes from the storm are particularly harrowing as hundreds of men, women and children wandered exposed to the full force of probably the most violent tropical storm in North American history.

Why were the vets left out to die this way? The story told by Scott, based on eyewitness accounts and subsequent court transcripts, lets you draw your own conclusion, but it seems that the authorities in charge were lax in their duties to protect the men and ordered the evacuation too late. A rescue train eventually arrived at the same time as the eyewall—sweeping away train, tracks and bridges. Hurricanes come and go, but bureaucratic bungling seems to be ever with us.

Much of the book is very timely in this post-Katrina era. When some vets attempted to make their own way to the mainland as the storm built, sheriff's deputies turned them back on the only road out—an eerie echo of New Orleans refugees' experience as they tried to escape from the flooding into surrounding municipalities.

Unlike today, though, much of the media attention after the storm was focused on a few dozen wealthy people trapped on a yacht aground off Key Largo. Except for Hemingway's piece in a Communist magazine and the attention of some veteran groups, the vets' story would have gone virtually unnoticed. As Scott points out so vividly, the vets were society's dispossessed and they and the poor inhabitants of the islands were pretty much an afterthought before, during and after the disaster.

I think everyone should read this before all the "instant" books on recent hurricanes arrive to give some needed historical perspective.

Phil is interviewed by U.S. News about the storm.

Full disclosure: Phil Scott and I rented desks in the same office space for several years, including about 9 months in the same large cubicle until just this past October. And we lived to tell about it.

Posted by campbell at December 5, 2005 01:36 PM