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Hurricane Memorial Service In Islamorada Focuses On Storms Past, And Present

The 1935 Labor Day Hurricane that slammed Islamorada was the strongest Atlantic hurricane landfall on record — until Sunday, when Hurricane Dorian tied it in the Bahamas.

On Monday, residents of Islamorada gathered for the annual Labor Day service at the Hurricane Memorial on Upper Matecumbe Key. They were thinking of hurricanes past — and present.

The accounts from those who survived the 1935 Labor Day hurricane are terrifying. People hung onto trees, huddled in shacks that blew apart around them, and sought shelter in overturned cars from a rescue train that was sent from the mainland too late.

Hundreds died in the storm. Barbara Edgar, president of the Matecumbe Historical Trustand one of the organizers of the annual service at the memorial, said many in the Keys are thinking about the people of the Bahamas who, like those in Islamorada in 1935, can't get to higher ground.

"We know what it's like and here we can, before the hurricane gets bad, get in a car and drive someplace. They have nowhere to go," she said.

State Rep. Holly Raschein lives in the Upper Keys. She says the Keys were lucky with Dorian but history shows the area's vulnerability to hurricanes.

"Everybody's kind of on pins and needles right now. We dodged a bullet, but we still have three months left of hurricane season and we're right in the height of it. So - not a time to let down our guard at all," she said.

The hurricane memorial was dedicated in 1937. It's a monument - but also a resting place with a crypt that contains the remains of some of the hurricane's victims.

Credit Monroe County Public Library
The Hurricane Memorial in Islamorada was dedicated in 1937. The storm killed hundreds of people, including many World War I veterans who were working on a federal relief project in the Keys.

Many of those victims were World War I veterans who were working on a federal relief project to build a highway in the Keys. They were staying in flimsy labor camps that had no chance against the winds and storm surge.

The FEC sent a train to rescue the workers, but several delays meant it arrived too late to return to the mainland. The storm washed out some of the railroad tracks and the railroad never ran again. Its bridges were transferred to the state and became the route for the Overseas Highway, U.S. 1 through the Keys.

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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