Back in the first few decades of the 1900’s, when a hurricane would hit in Florida, the papers would report on the storms by referencing the “Florida hurricane”. After a few of these in a year, it seemed to the rest of the country as if Florida was constantly being battered by high winds; threatened by huge ocean surges. Ambitious developers in the state, particularly in the Florida Keys, would have to calm nervous investors with each storm; downplaying the effects of the storms, including the number of deaths and the extent of destruction.
Still, their job was made that much more difficult every time the papers in the smug and distant North and West would report on that new Florida hurricane. And with each storm it became harder to hide the dead–especially after the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.
In 1935, as part of one of the New Deal construction jobs, unemployed World War 1 veterans, increasingly angry at not being able to find work after their sacrifices for their country, were employed to work on a highway connecting the Keys. This works project not only generated employment for the veterans, it also got them out of Washington DC, where they were a public embarrassment to the then current President, FDR:
The vets were sent to the islands in a move that combined compassion with political expediency. Soon after FDR took office in 1933, jobless veterans began assembling in Washington hoping to persuade him and Congress to immediately pay them a bonus for their wartime service that they were scheduled to receive in 1945. Roosevelt opposed early payment but wanted to help the desperately needy vets. And he also wanted them out of the capital and off the front pages of the Washington Post and New York Times.
The solution was to send the veterans to the Keys in November 1934 to build a highway intended to help restore Key West’s Depression-shattered economy. The men were paid $30 a month plus food, and were housed in three beachfront work camps.
Late in August of 1935, a hurricane formed east of the Bahamas and quickly intensified into a category 5 storm, heading straight for the Keys. The beachfront camps the veterans were house in were little more than shantytowns. If the hurricane hit the camps, FDR knew that the results could be devastating–to the men, and to his administration. He sent a train down to rescue the veterans; unfortunately, it came too late.
Following another practice of the day, the storm was named after the holiday during which it hit: the Labor Day hurricane. It was lucky, too, that the hurricane did hit during Labor Day as many of the veterans were at a baseball game and were spared. If they had been in the camps, the deaths would have been in the thousands.
I digress, though. In 1953, ostensibly inspired by the Navy, the National Weather Service began to name hurricanes–using female names because the storms seemed to move by whim, just like a woman was the philosophy. In actuality, the NWS most likely picked up the idea of naming storms from a novel, Storm by George Rippey Stewart, which featured a storm named Maria.
The system of names worked. Rather than “Labor Day hurricane” each storm in a season gets a name: Betsy, Camille, and when the women got uppity as women do Andrew and David. Not only is there no longer any confusion about which storm we’re discussing, especially in a busy season such as this, Florida developers could finally downplay the danger of hurricanes in Florida — just in time to lure all those retirees from New Jersey.
Now, for the first time since the naming system went into effect in 1953, the NWS has run out of names for storms and has had to resort to using the Greek alphabet. This new storm in a season that seems to never end is named Alpha. Sounds innocuous, doesn’t it?
We’ve now reached our worst hurricane season in recorded history. Add to this the warmest year on record, and the hottest ocean water–not to mention the alarming ice melt at the polar caps–I think we can safely say that global warming is no longer a figment of some scientists’ imaginations. Yes, this is the season inspired by big cars and vanishing rain forests and worrying less about the air we and our children breath than who marries whom.
Right after the flooding in New Orleans a few weeks back, a journalist posed a question to webloggers: what impact will Katrina have on American society? I responded at the time that Katrina marked the end of an age of plenty.
We have evolved into reflexive consumers. Rather than do without, we’ll buy at the dollar store or from the dollar menu, but the operative word is buy. Thanks to the lessons learned, corporation profits have jumped 60% while wages have increased only 2.9. With this continuous round of purchasing comes a price, and it isn’t just in dollars: pollution, over development of land, wasteful use of limited resources, flat earth economics and outsourcing, over-population, and a growing class of poor and vulerable–like the veterans put into harm’s way by a society not wanting to be reminded of its debt.
Rather than ask about Katrina’s impact on American Society, we should be asking what impact American society has had on Katrina. And Rita. And Stan. And Wilma.