On September 2, 1935, a Category 5 hurricane packing 200 mph winds barreled through Matecumbe Key, Fla., leaving little behind. The National Hurricane Center says that the storm was the strongest to hit the United States in the 20th century and was the first of two Category 5 hurricanes to hit the United States since record-keeping began. The American Red Cross played a significant role in the community recovery that took place.
According to records, the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 destroyed the Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad, which was the Keys’ only connection to the mainland. Lack of radar technology, slow modes of communication, bridges under construction and a slow transportation system made a bad situation much worse.
Hours after the unnamed storm blew through the Gulf of Mexico, survivors evacuated to a local inn where the Red Cross provided solace and assistance. First aid was also provided at a nearby hotel.
Months later, as the community started their recovery process, the Red Cross, Work Projects Administration, Federal Emergency Relief Administration (now FEMA) and the Veteran’s Administration, joined forces to construct specially-designed hurricane-proof homes. The homes, constructed with iron bars, featured 18-inch thick walls, concrete roofs, and were twelve feet above ground with built-in cisterns designed to hold a year's worth of water.
During the construction of these homes, women and children were relocated and provided for by the Red Cross.
Two years after the storm, a total of twenty-nine Red Cross homes were built. Several of them still exist today and are used as residences. Visible along U.S. Highway 1, the homes serve as a reminder of the Florida Keys’ history and the Red Cross mission: to help people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies.