“Whenever hurricane season arrived, Willie Drye was National Geographic News’ “go-to” source for all things related to hurricanes, from the science and history to explaining the powerful dynamic forces at work. From his experience and extensive research, he was, and remains, one of the most informed journalists on this subject. His passion for scientific knowledge and exquisitely detailed storytelling bring his readers right into the eye of the hurricane, gripping them with the details of how these big storms develop, helping them understand and appreciate the awesome power of these titanic forces of nature.” – David Braun, former VP Editor in Chief of National Geographic Digital Media

Willie Drye is an American journalist and author. He has won awards for his writing about the science of hurricanes and their social and financial impacts on society. He has published three nonfiction books and has written about hurricanes and other topics for National Geographic since 2003. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail of Toronto, the New York Times News Service, and other national and regional publications. 

He is a frequent guest on radio talk shows (including WLRN Miami, WUNC Chapel Hill, and other radio and television stations). Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 and his work for National Geographic have been cited in scientific studies of hurricanes,  legal briefs, local emergency management planning, school and library suggested reading lists about hurricanes, and in various publications. His other books are Images of America: Plymouth and Washington County and For Sale—American Paradise: How Our Nation Was Sold an Impossible Dream in Florida, which won a 2016 IPPY Award Silver Medal for Best Nonfiction, Southeast Region. Willie lives in Wilmington, North Carolina.

ABOUT THE BOOK

“A scenario similar to the 1935 hurricane is one of my biggest fears as a forecaster today. This is a haunting and very possible scenario in coastal areas that have seen exponential growth since this monster. Willie Drye’s book relives that 1935 horror and reminds us how breathtaking and unforgiving paradise can be.” –  Jim Cantore, The Weather Channel

In 1934, in the middle of the Great Depression, hundreds of jobless WWI veterans were sent to the remote Florida Keys on a government work program to build a highway from Miami to Key West. The Roosevelt Administration was making a genuine effort to help these down-and-out vets, many of whom suffered from what is known today as post-traumatic stress disorder. But the attempt to help them turned into a tragedy. 

The supervisors in charge of the veterans misunderstood the danger posed by hurricanes in the low-lying Florida Keys. In late August 1935, a small stealthy tropical storm crossed the Bahamas, causing little damage. When it entered the Straits of Florida, however, it exploded into one of the most powerful hurricanes on record. At that time, the U.S. Weather Bureau forecasters could only make an educated guess at its exact position, and their calculations tragically ended up being off the mark.

The hurricane that struck the Upper Florida Keys on the evening of September 2, 1935, is still the most powerful hurricane to make landfall in the United States. Supervisors waited too long to call for an evacuation train from Miami to move the vets out of harm’s way. The train was slammed by the storm surge and winds exceeding 180 mph soon after it reached Islamorada. Only the 160-ton locomotive was left upright on the tracks. About 400 veterans were left unprotected in flimsy work camps and approximately 260 of them were killed. This book is their story, revised and expanded with new information and stories of some of the heroes of the Labor Day 1935 calamity.

TALKING POINTS

  • The Climate Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts that conditions are right for a rough hurricane season this year. What can coastal governments do in the midst of a partial shutdown?
  • In the current pandemic, what are the dangers we are going to face if we have to order a full-scale evacuation in the face of a powerful hurricane? (Especially in large cities like Miami, New Orleans, and Houston).
  • The Florida Keys are always vulnerable to dangerous storms. If a Cat 5 hurricane approaches, will the residents be able to get out safely? Willie doubts that they will.
  • What can government officials learn from FDR’s handling of the veterans work program?
  • Advice for coastal residents to be ready for the next big storm
  • After the tragedy, responsibility for the deaths of the veterans turned into an old-fashioned blame-a-thon. Are there lessons to be learned that could affect us when the next catastrophic hurricane makes landfall?

PRAISE

“A big reward here is finding writing which at every turn is vivid and significant. This book places you atop a high roaring wave and will not let you down until the last page.” – Clyde Edgerton, New York Times bestselling author and winner of five New York Times Notable Book of the Year awards

“This new release of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 is as gripping as an adventure novel, and as important as any book about hurricanes on my bookshelf.” – Bryan Norcross,  Weather Channel meteorologist and now hurricane specialist for WPLG-TV in Miami

“Willie Drye’s excellent and remarkably detailed book brings the reader directly into the eye of the storm, where he follows a host of dramatic stories for survival. The story and lessons of the 1935 hurricane are important to learn, since a warming climate promises to make such maximum-strength hurricanes more common at a time when the coastal population is surging.” – Jeff Masters, former meteorological director for The Weather Underground

“The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, the most intense hurricane ever to have struck the U.S., also served, as with most natural cataclysms, as a stage upon which human frailty and magnificence both played out. Its story is here wonderfully told by Willie Drye, a reporter with decades of experience and a real knack for exploring the human dimensions of a natural disaster.”- Kerry Emanuel, PhD, Professor of Atmospheric Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; member, National Academy of Sciences; member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences; named one of the 100 most influential people by Time magazine in 2006