Horror In Paradise: Labor Day Recalls Famous Storm, Reminding Us All To Pray
By Michael H. Brown
It was the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the U.S., and it came on Labor Day in 1935. Today it serves as a sober reminder of what can come if we don't convert -- and if we don't pray for the conversion of others. In recent times we have seen warnings: years with record numbers of tropical storms, and years when hurricanes that could have been as powerful as the Labor Day storm -- but much larger -- narrowly missed direct hits on places like South Florida. Take the example of Hurricane Floyd (above). In 1999 it threatened to become a terrifying category-five storm, with massive size (enough to cover an entire state) and a course that took direct aim at the populous east coast of Florida. Millions evacuated -- the largest such evacuation in modern American history. But against the odds, the storm suddenly veered from a direct hit, weakened, and headed north. When we were in Lantana recently -- which was right in this hurricane's path -- the people explained how fervently they prayed and how sure they were that their prayers and those of thousands elsewhere saved South Florida from what would have been one of our nation's greatest-ever catastrophes.
As Jesus said, with just a little faith we can move a mountain -- and we might add, also a hurricane!
But in our times as we hit a steeper curve of warnings we need to strengthen that faith and we need to pray for those (and not just in Florida) who are vulnerable. While hurricane seasons have tempered a bit since then (actually quiet this year) it was during a "quiet" year that the Labor Day storm struck -- once more accenting how we can rely only on God, and how horrendous things can be without His sure help.
It was September 2, 1935, when a monster, a category-five, hit the Florida Keys like a superstorm out of the Middle Ages.
It started as a tropical depression near the Bahamas and wasn't a hurricane until it approached Nassau and underwent violent deepening -- its pressure plummeting to a mind-boggling, a record, 892 millibars (compared with 933 in Hurricane Floyd). Where storms like the one that destroyed Galveston in 1900 had blown at 130 miles an hour, the Labor Day Hurricane had sustained winds of 150 to 200 and gusts that detonated at 250.
Hysteria reigned. At Alligator Reef wind shattered the thick glass on the beacon at a lighthouse (carrying the lens ten miles) and titanic swells rushed ashore. Once more Hurukan -- the origin of the name hurricane, meaning "storm god" to the Mayans and "evil spirit" to Caribbean Indians -- came in the dark of night, the fiercest winds blasting across Islamorada -- a small island that is 65 miles southwest of Miami and that saw surges overtopping the entire island.
Hundreds drowned, flushed out of ravaged homes, unable to keep a grip on roofs, poles, and trees, the air whipping so savagely that corpses lost distinguishable facial characteristics. It was what one chronicler called a storm with "the most awesome storm effects imaginable."
It was an explosion of wind and it lifted sand with such force that it generated an electrical charge -- looked like fireflies. That was accompanied by terrific lightning that scorched the horizon. There was no overstating this storm: barometric pressure, the most important gauge of a hurricane's force, dropped a full degree over the span of just six miles -- a plunge exceeded only in tornadoes. At Alligator Reef a huge cruise ship was carried four miles inland and at Islamorada a train sent to rescue veterans working in a relief program was swept from the tracks, the waiting veterans grasping onto the rails and blowing like laundry on a clothesline.
"I was almost nine at the time," a good Christian named Floyd Russell, whose large family ran a plantation on Islamorada, told Spirit Daily. "During the storm most of the family stayed in their homes on the ocean, but my father and his immediate family and his brother and his family went to a little one-room packing house where they used to package and ship key limes up in the middle of the island, which was a little higher. But it didn't matter a whole lot where you were. I remember the water was coming in under the door and my uncle reaching down and tasting it and saying, `It's salt water.' That meant that it wasn't rainwater, that the ocean was coming in, and shortly after the building started going to pieces and the adults grabbed all the children and went out into the storm and the water was probably eight or ten feet over much of the island.
"It was pitch black, the middle of the night, and you couldn't see anything. There was no way you could know what was happening. I was just a child but you can imagine what parents went through, trying to decide which child to hold onto. It had to be the worst experience. You couldn't hold onto any child or anything. It was just impossible. It was the will of the Good Lord that I survived. As best that I can remember I was separated from my father and apparently tried to hold onto a piece of a house or something. But during the storm I had a head wound, a big gash in my head, and perhaps I was unconscious and maybe that's one of the reasons I survived: I wasn't struggling so hard but I remember I was old enough to pray and I was just praying that I might get through it and it was just the good Lord who got me through it. There wasn't anything a nine-year-old boy could do to survive something like that. You were just out and you were at the mercy of the wind and the waves. It's a miracle that anyone survived in this area. My uncle was severely injured. Something big hit him in the hip and knocked a hole in the meaty part. Another cousin was pinned up in a tree. There were 15 of us in that building and 11 died, including my mother, two sisters, and two brothers. Only my father, my uncle, my cousin Bernard, and I survived."
A few years older at 17, Bernard had remained conscious.
"You couldn't see your hand in front of your face, you couldn't see anything," said Bernard. "You didn't know what was going on around you. You didn't have time even to scream. When we started going out of the building my dad said, `Everyone grab a hold and hold onto someone when we go out and then when you get out hang on,' but when you got out of the house the wind and waves just separated you. There was no way you could hang on together. I was with my sister and her little boy, who I was holding onto, and we went out but the wind spun me around and I never saw either of them again.
"The good Lord was looking out for me because I was washed around in a pile of trash and coconut trees and lime trees and it was just a big boiling pot, along with all the houses and stuff floating like a tidal wave went over the island. Whatever you could grab hold of you did, but you still didn't know what you were doing because you couldn't see. You grabbed hold of anything you could. It might be a piece of a house. It might be a telephone pole. It might be a bed. You couldn't tell. And you couldn't hang on with the force against you. There was no way you could control it. The initial wave went across in a hurry. A piece of debris hit me in the back and pushed me down to the ground and I took a couple gulps and thought it was all over. Somehow I got back to the top but swimming didn't help you. It was like a boiling pot, houses, trees, boats -- everything all in one pile and everyone trying not to be washed off the island. A lot of people, that's what happened: they grabbed on to something and it took them across the island and it put them out in the bay and of course that was the end of that."
The winds had raged until five a.m. and the sight in the light of morning was beyond anguish.
There were 53 Russells before the storm -- and only 15 after.
It was the most intense storm ever to hit the U.S., but was tiny in size. What would have happened if it had hit a populated area? What would happen if such a storm hit a major American city? How would this have been if it had been a much larger?
Only God rescues us from such circumstances. And grants miracles: Bernard came to rest on a mound of wreckage; miraculously, another of the very few survivors was his father.
"After I got down I heard a voice," said Bernard. "It was my dad. I didn't know it was him at the time. I kept telling him to yell, to yell, to yell and I would yell back, and I finally crawled on the ground not knowing where I was going or what I would run into because I couldn't see until I told him to keep yelling and I got over to where he was and we just sat there and waited it out until daylight."
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