HURRICANES AND KEY WEST CEMETERIES

I was traveling through Islamorada on my way back to Key West after escaping Irma. As with 80 percent of my fellow Key West citizens, I got out of Dodge when it was reported Irma might hit Key West as a category 5.

Better safe than sorry.

Islamorada was a disaster. Everything where it did not belong. Boats on land, houses in the ocean and canals, cars everywhere except on roads and in driveways.

I was traveling on US 1 when to my right I saw something I will probably never see again. A big tree to with a huge refrigerator laying on its side on two heavy branches about 20 feet up.

Such was not the first time a Keys’ hurricane had transported something unnatural onto trees and in a wooded area. The hurricane that struck Key West on October 11, 1864, did also. Hurricanes not named back then. Nor designated by category.

Historians today label the 1846 hurricane a 5.

The wind was the strongest ever recalled. The wind, flooding, damages, and suffering unparalleled in Key West history.

Key West was wiped out. Leveled.

Residential dwellings approximately 400 at the time. Only 10 left standing. Commercial buildings in excess of 500. Only 8 left standing.

Death toll unknown. Records were not kept at the time.

The wind blew wood and stone over the island. A witness described the air as “filled with missiles.”

Interestingly, very little rain. A storm surge of some magnitude, however. Five to eight feet high, traveling at 6 miles per hour. Covered the island swiftly.

No Sloppy Joe’s in 1846. Where Sloppy Joe’s stands today was a 200 foot long salt pond. A bridge to get across. The wind blew out the bridge. People needed the bridge to get to higher ground to escape the surge. They were forced to swim. In water filled with all kinds of debris.

There were two Key West cemeteries at the time. The public one behind a natural dune ridge paralleling the southern beachfront. The other, a military cemetary. Located near the Marine Hospital.

Both cemeteries destroyed. The scene especially macabre in a forest nearby the public cemetery. The hurricane had disinterred buried bodies. Blown some into the forest. One witness described the scene: “The dead were scattered through the forest, many of them lodged in trees.” A refrigerator following Irma. Dead bodies in 1846.

The military graveyard “…..entirely washed away.”

Remember William Hackley of Key West Citizen fame? He wrote in his diary: “The hurricane of 1846 has made cowards of us all.” It was that bad.

A community needs a cemetery. Especially a growing one. The very next year the Key West Cemetery was opened. In Old Town. Nineteen acres.

It is estimated 100,000 are buried in the new cemetery. Sixty of them reinterred from those bodies blown out of graves  and scattered nearby. Including the forest.

The cemetery averages 100 new interments a year.

Although the new cemetery was opened in 1847, some of its headstones go back as far as 1829. Stones that survived the 1846 hurricane.

Irma was bad enough. There are parts of the lower Keys still  recovering. Rebuilding, clean up, not even close to completion.

We are still ahead of the game, however. We have learned and continue to learn. Advance warnings, preparation, building codes, FEMA, other governmental assistance, etc.

I assume we build our cemeteries better. I really don’t know. It may take a category 5 to find out.

 

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