Twenty years and one day after Hurricane Andrew swept across South Florida leaving 200,000 homes looking like they’d been passed over by a giant lawnmower, we have our eyes on Isaac, another tropical storm heading our way.

Living in South Florida, one has to expect (and be prepared for) tropical storms and full-blown hurricanes—just as Californians live with earthquakes, Midwesterners live with twisters, and so on. As a professor of history, I know that hurricanes directly determined the fate of several sixteenth-century European colonial ventures in our region.

In 1526, for example, Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón landed more than 500 colonists and slaves from his six ships in La Florida (probably somewhere in South Carolina or Georgia) and founded the town of San Miguel de Guadalupe. After only three months, epidemics, poor provisioning, Indian hostility, and the death of the leader, the 150 survivors sailed away only to face a terrible storm at sea. Unwilling to admit defeat, in early 1527 the Spanish Crown appointed Pánfilo de Narváez adelantado of La Florida; he landed his fleet of six storm-weakened ships and six hundred men on the west of Florida near present-day St. Petersburg the following spring. Finding no gold and hostile natives, Narváez built several rafts to try to escape the area and reconnect with his ships, but the ships and then two of the rafts were destroyed in a hurricane, stranding 86 ragged survivors off the coast of Texas. Four of these (Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, and a Moroccan slave called Estevanico) escaped Indian slavery and made an overland trek to New Spain (Mexico).

Although such disasters had discouraged Spain’s Catholic King from further colonial ventures, news of foreign reconnaisances and of the establishment of a French Protestant fort in the vicinity of present-day Jacksonville caused him to reconsider. The king authorized the admiral of his treasure fleet, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to remove the “heretic pirates”and to establish a permanent Spanish presence along the coast of La Florida even as the French admiral Jean Ribault hastened preparations to reinforce their fledgling colony. The two fleets and forces squared off along the northern coast of Florida just as a hurricane hit. In the midst of the torrential storm, Menéndez audaciously marched his soldiers from St. Augustine to capture the French fort, and afterwards marched south to execute the shipwrecked survivors of the French relief expedition. The image below (which erroneously states Jean Ribault’s assassination as 1562 rather than 1565) appears in Voyages & glorieuses découvertes des grands navigateurs & explorateurs français, a book beautifully illustrated with pochoir (stencil work) prints by Edy Legrand and published in Paris by Tolmer in 1921.

With his French threat removed, the founder of St. Augustine settled in, coasting the peninsula, treating with the Indians and rescuing Spanish storm and shipwreck victims like Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, who had been living as a captive of the Calusa Indians for some seventeen years.

Jumping to the twentieth century, Florida has continued to experience its fair share of powerful storms. There was, of course, the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926, which claimed the lives of more than 350 persons unprepared for the storm; leveled much of the architectural landscape of Miami and Miami Beach and left another 30,000 to 50,000 homeless; ended the land boom; and plunged South Florida into the Great Depression three years earlier than the rest of the nation. The Wolfsonian holds a copy of A Pictorial history of the Florida hurricane, September 18, 1926 which included these photographic illustrations of the damage wrought by the storm.

You may visit my earlier blog post for more details and images of this deadly storm. The library also has a rare broadside printed in the aftermath of the hurricane that attempted to downplay “exaggerated” descriptions of the devastation in the press and to provide an optimistic vision for the region’s rapid recovery in an attempt to stave off the developing real estate bust.

In 1935, another tropical hurricane was poised to hit South Florida. As Labor Day approached, authorities belatedly realized that Works Progress Administration (WPA) construction workers and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) enrollees still needed to be evacuated from the Florida Keys. Although most CCC units were made up of young men between the ages of 17 to 23, older unemployed World War I veterans and Bonus Army demonstrators had also enrolled in the government programs and hundreds were assigned to ramshackle camps on Windley Key and Lower Matecumbe Key. A train dispatched from Miami set out too late to rescue the stranded workers; all of the cars except for the locomotive engine were blown off the tracks and out to sea by wind gusts in excess of 100 miles an hour and the 18 to 20 foot storm surge that swept over the islands. Of the 400 to 600 victims, nearly all had been stranded in the keys; WWI veterans stationed in the “tent-city” work camps accounted for roughly half of the casualties. Our library holds a number of works documenting the plight of these neglected veterans.


Living in the Keys, Ernest Hemingway was so outraged by what he deemed criminal neglect on the part of the government that he accepted an invitation from the editors of the radical periodical, New Masses to write an eye-witness account of the debacle. Hemingway’s angry article was pointedly titled: “Who Murdered the Vets? A First-Hand Report on the Florida Hurricane” and appeared in the September 17 issue. In it, he noted that “wealthy people, yachtsmen, fishermen such as President Hoover and President Roosevelt, do not come to the Florida Keys in hurricane months” when there is “a known danger to property.” “But veterans,” he asserted with considerable indignation, “especially the bonus-marching variety of veterans, are not property. They are only human beings; unsuccessful human beings, and all they have to lose is their lives. They are doing coolie labor for a top wage of $45 a month and they have been put down on the Florida Keys where they can’t make trouble. It is hurricane months, sure, but if anything comes up, you can always evacuate them, can’t you?” Of course, those evacuation efforts failed dismally, and anyone looking for traces of the veterans “could find them face down and face up in the mangroves. The biggest bunch of the dead were in the tangled, always green but now brown, mangroves behind the tanks cars and the water towers. They hung on there, in shelter, until the wind and the rising water carried them away.”

Since those dark days, weather forecasting and satellite technology has dramatically improved our ability to monitor the development and to predict the strength and paths of these deadly storms. Although South Floridians had adequate warning to prepare for Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the storm surprised even the experts by rapidly gaining strength and taking a sharp turn to the south just before making landfall. But even preparation did not guarantee protection from the ravishing power of the cyclone winds, and some 200,000 lost their homes. Other dangerous storms have swept through the Caribbean and across South Florida after Andrew. Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma blew on through in the stormy 2005 season. As the experts attempt to project Isaac’s trajectory, we would all be well-advised to be prepared, lest we forget that even a tropical storm or lower category hurricane can pack a punch.

~ by "The Chief" on August 25, 2012.


  1. Excellent blog. Amazing! Thanks very much.

  2. Great post and powerful images!

  3. Excellent! I would just add that the wonderful memorial from 1935 that you show is, I believe, in Marathon & was itself a New Deal art project, and is also a cenotaph containing cremated remains of the victims.

  4. […] had been living in Florida for about a year when Andrew, a category 5 hurricane, buzzed across the state like a lawnmower in August 1992, completely […]

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