August 28, 2019 – (Key West, FL). Key West Art & Historical Society welcomes “Storm of the Century” author Willie Drye as Distinguished Speaker Series Guest
After South Florida reporter Willie Drye went through Hurricane Andrew in 1992, he decided that if he was going to live in a part of the world known for these storms, learning all he could about them would help him stay sane. His research eventually led him to write “Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935,” a riveting account of the devastating category 5 storm that destroyed Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad and killed more than 400 people in the Florida Keys. Drye will share insights on how he originally came to write about the 1935 hurricane, the people he met in the course of his research, and the hurricane itself, and will also present his newly revised and released edition of his book on Thursday, September 26, from 6:00PM – 7:00PM in the Helmerich Research & Learning Center on the third floor of the Custom House Museum, 281 Front Street.
Key West Art & Historical Society caught up with the Distinguished Speaker for a sneak peek into the evening’s discourse.
You’ve written extensive stories on hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunamis during your 35-year career. When did your fascination with fierce weather begin?
In 1954, I was a few days away from my fifth birthday when Hurricane Hazel struck North Carolina. It brought 140-mph winds that devastated southeastern North Carolina. We lived a couple hundred miles inland, but went to help my aunt and uncle who lived on Oak Island near Southport, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River near Wilmington. There was nothing left of their house but a concrete slab. The destruction was crazy. Houses pushed off their foundations, windows tilted toward the sky. Debris and wreckage and people’s belongings strewn everywhere. A dirty brown line on many walls, higher than your head, which indicated how deep the water had been. For some reason it didn’t frighten me, it fascinated me.
Are there any people you interviewed for your book who stand out?
Not many survivors of the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 were still alive, but I was lucky enough to connect with Bernard Russell in Islamorada, who had probably the most remarkable experience of anyone who survived the storm. Bernard was 16 years old at the time. He was trapped on the beach at Islamorada as the storm surge—driven by winds that reached 200 mph at times—came ashore. Somehow, he survived. Talking to him about his experience was one of the most fascinating interviews I’ve ever done.
Tom Hambright, the historian at the Monroe County Public Library in Key West, was also a memorable character. He provided a wealth of sources, as well as depth and context to the history of the hurricane. Jerry Wilkinson in Tavernier opened his massive files on the hurricane, and he and his wife Mary Lou put up with me during many research trips to the Keys.
What makes the second edition different than the first?
I’ve expanded the stories of many of the people who experienced the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, including the tale of Leonard Povey, the daredevil American pilot who made history’s first hurricane-hunter airplane flight on that September 2, 1935 afternoon. This guy, whose motto was “God hates a coward,” climbed into a little open-cockpit, biplane fighter in Havana that day and went looking for the most powerful hurricane on record. I don’t know if he was crazy or the bravest man on earth, but he found the center of the hurricane. There’s also a new chapter about Hurricane Irma and how it compares to the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, and I think readers will find that interesting.
Drye will be available for book sales and signings after the presentation. Books can also be purchased at the Custom House Museum’s store.
Distinguished Speaker Series presentation tickets are $5 for KWAHS members, $10 for non-members, and are available at kwahs.org/events. Early ticket purchase is recommended. Sponsored by the Helmerich Trust, Key West Marriott Beachside Hotel, and the State of Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. Your Museums. Your Community. It takes an Island.
Hurricane expert and award-winning author Willie Drye is to appear as Key West Art & Historical Society Distinguished Speaker Series guest on Thursday, September 26. (Contributed photo)