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Real Florida

When paradise became purgatory

Floyd Russell lived through the Labor Day hurricane that struck the Florida Keys in 1935. Many of his relatives weren't so lucky.

Published September 18, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - The television is tuned to Fox News over at Floyd Russell's house on Snell Isle. Horrific images of New Orleans and Mississippi roll across the screen. After a while Floyd has to change the channel and watch Antiques Roadshow on PBS for relief. Then he tries WXPX-Ch. 17, for baseball. He is a big Devil Rays fan. He hopes they don't trade Rocco Baldelli, his favorite player.

His attention returns to Fox News and more hurricane coverage, more dead bodies, more homeless people - more Katrina all the time.

Mute button.

"I get tired of it," he says. "After a while, I am hungry for news other than the hurricane. With the sound off at least I can read the headlines about other news crawling across the bottom of the screen."

He isn't indifferent to the suffering happening on the northern Gulf Coast. The opposite is true. For him watching is especially painful.

His feelings have much to do with what happened to him when he was a boy, 8 years old, and living with his family on South Florida's Matecumbe Key, in the little community of Islamorada.

Life in the Florida Keys in 1935 could have been a page torn from Tom Sawyer.

He and his cousins - 53 Russells lived on Matecumbe alone - played in the lime groves. They collected fiddler crabs. They waved to the train as it chugged across the island on its way to Key West 80 miles distant. Nobody had electricity on Matecumbe. The nights were so black the stars almost cast shadows.

On Labor Day a storm blew in from the Atlantic.

When it was over 38 of his relatives were gone. They were victims of what is still the most powerful hurricane to ever strike the United States.

He is 78 now and lives with his memories of those 200 mph winds and the 18-foot tidal surge.

"I really don't like to live in the past," he says. "You know, I really don't talk about the 1935 hurricane that much."

On the other hand, he is the family historian.

He lost his mother, two sisters and two brothers in his hurricane.

When they stop counting the dead on the northern Gulf Coast, he hopes nobody else will be able to say the same.

No Weather Channel

During hurricane season, Russell and his wife, Melissa, watch the Weather Channel as if they have been hypnotized.

"You better pay attention if you live in Florida," she says.

It is impossible for a hurricane to sneak up on the United States - at least today. Satellites notice the storms as soon as they form off the African coast, in the Caribbean or in the gulf. Then meteorologists study computers and wind models to figure out where the storm might go. But still, as those folks in Louisiana and Mississippi and Punta Gorda well know, hurricane forecasting is hardly an exact science.

In 1935, forecasting was only a step or two above reading tea leaves.

A ship out in the ocean might experience tropical winds and notify the U.S. mainland. If winds were especially strong, the news might make the radio or the paper the next day. On the Keys, no sane person depended on the media to save his skin.

Everybody had a barometer. Floyd's dad, James Clifton Russell, had one. So did Uncle John next door. For generations, Russells had lived with storms, first in coastal South Carolina, then in the Bahamas, and finally on Matecumbe Key beginning in 1854.

When the barometer showed 29.92 inches of mercury everything was normal, safe to climb into a boat and sail to the reef to catch snapper and haul lobster traps. When the barometer fell, seagoing folks took notice.

On Labor Day, the barometer headed south.

In Miami, it was noticed, too. The Florida East Coast Railway dispatched a train to evacuate the island. Under normal conditions, Matecumbe's population numbered several hundred, but it had swelled that summer. More than 600 unemployed World War I veterans were on Matecumbe building a highway. Living in primitive camps, they were vulnerable to even weak tropical storms.

The evacuation train was delayed leaving Miami. It was delayed again when a broken cable above the tracks snagged the locomotive. Finally, around dusk, it reached the Keys. By then, Russell family barometers were at 27.90 - and falling by the minute.

The bruised sky could have been inspired by Edvard Munch's The Scream. Water flew over the islands in winds stronger than what anyone had ever experienced.

Desperate decisions

Floyd Russell has a favorite chair at his house on Snell Isle. It's one of those cushy recliners on which he can lie with his feet up while perusing his Bible and watching the news.

Floyd is still a husky man who wears a jumpsuit like a NASCAR mechanic. He has eyes the color of the Gulf Stream and a healthy head of white hair. His cowlick hides a prominent scar. Whatever belted him in the head in 1935 did him a favor. It stole at least some of his memories.

But not all.

The Russell clan lived in wood houses, up on blocks, on the shore of the raging Atlantic Ocean. As winds grew, Floyd's dad and Uncle John elected to take their families to higher ground. Higher ground is a relative term in the Keys, of course. It can mean 6 feet above sea level.

Matecumbe is about a half-mile wide. The two families marched inland a few hundred yards to the packing house where key limes were sorted before shipping. As the winds shrieked, and water rushed through the door, the house moaned and began coming apart. Floyd's dad shouted, "Let's get out of here!" Better to take their chances in the storm.

Seven decades later, in his Snell Isle home, Floyd Russell leans forward in his chair.

"The thing I can't stop thinking about is the decision the adults in that room had to make at that very second. I mean, there were two men in there and two women - but nine kids. Who was going try to hold whom? I always think about that."

Barometers on the island registered 26.35, the lowest ever recorded in the United States. It was a compact storm - the eye was barely 8 miles across. But in the eye wall winds exceeded 200 mph with higher gusts and tornadoes.

Floyd's dad grabbed his arm and opened the door.

"People were instantly blown away or washed away - I'm not sure. Something hit my head, I don't know what. I don't know what happened except I guess the Lord wanted me to live."

When his eyes opened water had receded. His dad led him to a freight car flopped on its side at the railroad tracks.

Ancient coconut palms had been uprooted or snapped in half. Bodies lay everywhere, in wreckage and under fallen trees. Some people were sandblasted to death, their skin gone. One talkative survivor had been impaled by a tree limb. He was offered morphine but asked for two beers. He drank his beers, the limb was pulled from his abdomen, and he died.

Floyd's dad left the train car to search for family.

He found his daughter Florene and his wife, Charlotte.

He knelt over Charlotte and removed her wedding band.

When Floyd married Melissa 52 years ago he slipped the same ring on her finger.

Uncovering the destruction

You can ask Floyd Russell about how a boy or man recovers, emotionally, from such a trauma if you want, and he will do his best to help. In his case, he depended on prayer, his faith in God and focused on the present.

"You know, I think the Lord builds into children the ability to endure. Later on it hit me, but I just tried to stay busy. I tried not to dwell on the past."

After two days his dad put him on a boat and sent him to friends in Miami. He went by boat because the train tracks were gone or twisted like pipe cleaner, never to be rebuilt.

A week later those friends sent him by boat to live with friends in Key West.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world was slowly discovering the horror.

Officially, 408 bodies were recovered, including 259 World War I veterans.

Ernest Hemingway arrived from Key West to write an essay for a socialist magazine, New Masses. The title of his article was "Who Murdered the Vets?"

Hemingway was furious about that delayed rescue train. But he provided a terrific account of the hurricane's aftermath.

"The railroad embankment was gone and the men who had cowered behind it . . . were all gone with it," he wrote. "You could find them face down and face up in the mangroves . . . Then further on you found them high in the trees where the water had swept them . . . beginning to be too big for their blue jeans and jackets that they could never fill when they were on the bum and hungry."

In the heat, bodies swelled and began to rot. A boat hauled 116 for burial in Miami. The remainder were placed on a pile of broken railroad ties and rubber tires and burned on Matecumbe.

Floyd Russell's dad never located the bodies of three of his children. For years afterward, skeletons were discovered on offshore islands.

Two decades after the hurricane a developer's bulldozer on Matecumbe uncovered three skeletons, sitting behind the wheels of three different automobiles.

The automobiles all had 1935 license plates.

Building a fortress

Floyd Russell spent the next few years in Key West, returning to Matecumbe on weekends and summer vacations. The lime groves were gone, but he helped his dad, the postmaster, sort and deliver mail. He enrolled in a military school in Georgia when he was 13. Drafted during World War II, he was selected by the Army to study Japanese at Yale. The war ended and he graduated with an architecture degree instead. After he married Melissa, he worked in New Jersey for her dad, not as an architect but as a publisher of medical books.

Only in 1960 did he and Melissa return to Matecumbe - just in time for a Category 4 storm known as Donna. They spent the hurricane huddled in the attic as the ocean lapped at the ceiling.

They rebuilt again.

He built a house on the island known as "Floyd's Fortress." It featured reinforced walls, a sturdy roof and steel shutters that a coconut fired from a cannon might not have dented. In Floyd's fortress, bedrooms were downstairs, and the most valuable possessions, his beloved piano and organ, were on the second floor. Just in case.

The Russells have a son, John Clifton, known as J.C., a mortgage broker in St. Petersburg. In 2000 they moved into the same Snell Isle neighborhood where their son lives. Their home on Brightwaters, across the street from the water, is one of those sprawling ranch-style houses where everything outside and inside seems perfectly placed - including the prized candy dish resurrected from the sand that covered the island after the 1935 hurricane.

On the dining room table built by his late father from Florida Keys mahogany, Floyd spreads old news clippings and photographs of his family taken in 1934 and a chart showing who in his family lived and who in his family died on that terrible night of Sept. 2, 1935.

He is the last survivor.

He leads the way into the back yard.

"I believe in having hurricane shutters," he says on the patio. "I have pretty good ones. Look here. I have accordion shutters. They are easier for a man my age to open and close."

He demonstrates.

"You just grab them and slide," he says, grunting. "See? They run along a little track."

The shutter hangs up.

"Ah, look at this! Wasps built their nests right in the tracks. Mud dauber wasps. I got to get rid of these mud dauber wasps before we have a hurricane."

- Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at 727 893-8727 or

* * *

Further reading: "Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad That Crossed an Ocean," by Les Standiford, Crown Publishing.

[Last modified September 15, 2005, 13:20:04]

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