Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.
By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 10:47 PM GMT on December 22, 2006
The long Christmas weekend is upon us, and I thought it would be fitting to write about my visit a few weeks ago to the Key West's Hurricane Grotto--the Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine at St. Mary's Star of the Sea Roman Catholic Church at 700 Truman Avenue. It was there in 1922 that Sister M. Louis Gabriel and her fellow nuns created a stone shrine in memory of the 600 who died during the great Atlantic-Gulf hurricane of Sept. 10, 1919, a Category 4 hurricane that made a direct hit on Key West. Sister Gabriel blessed the grotto and vowed, "As long as the Grotto stands, Key West will never experience the full brunt of a hurricane." Key West residents regularly make pilgrimages to the grotto to light candles and pray for protection from hurricanes. So far, the grotto has worked--no Key West resident has died from a hurricane strike since the 1919 hurricane. However, as Brian Norcross pointed out to me, the Grotto's protection has not been perfect. Key West did suffer the brunt of Hurricane Georges in 1998, which made a direct hit on the island as a Category 2 storm with 105 mph winds. Key West also felt the western eyewall of a Category 3 hurricane in September 1948. The hurricane's calm eye passed over Boca Chica Key 8 miles to the east of Key West, bringing winds that were clocked at 122 mph at Boca Chica Airport before the anemometer blew away.
I was eager to see the famed Grotto myself and offer my own thanks for a merciful 2006 hurricane season. After a short walk from the hubbub of downtown Key West's gift shops and restaurants, I found myself on the church grounds where the grotto stands, surrounded by majestic trees and bordered by inviting paths and gardens. As I neared the stone edifice, my footsteps slowed automatically, for here was clearly a place that should be approached slowly and with reverence. I could feel a powerful spiritual energy emanating from the Grotto. It was clear that many, many people had prayed here in the 85 years since its construction. I entered a small cave filled with burning candles, and stood in quietness before the altar, offering my prayers of thanks for a quiet 2006 hurricane season, and add my own wishes for Key West's continued protection.
Figure 1. Key West's famous Hurricane Grotto.
Has the lack a direct strike by a hurricane in Key West since 1919 been unusual? Yes. South Florida is the most hurricane prone area in the Atlantic next to Puerto Rico, so it is surprising that we've gone so long without a bad hurricane in Key West. Hurricane Wilma brought a 5-foot storm surge to Key West in 2005 and caused millions in damage, but the brunt of the hurricane missed the island. Likewise, when Hurricane Rita approached Key West in September of 2005, it was apparent that the protection of the Grotto would be severely tested. But as I wrote in a blog the day after Rita passed:
Well, the protection of the grotto worked again. Key West barely escaped the brunt of a severe hurricane that could have been so very much worse. Had Rita's intensification cycle started 24 hours earlier, and she tracked 50 miles further north, the city of Key West would have been devastated. The Key West airport never measured sustained hurricane force winds from Rita, although the National Hurricane Center did receive an unofficial report of sustained winds of 75 mph with gusts to 102 mph in the Key West area. There was flooding and wind damage that will no doubt add up to tens of millions of dollars, but Key West is feeling lucky tonight. Key Westers, pay a visit to your grotto tomorrow and give thanks!
This holiday season, give thanks for your blessings, and pray for a more peaceful world and a peaceful hurricane season of 2007. Happy Holidays, everyone!
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