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Remembering the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 in the Florida Keys

By: Bob Henson 5:50 PM GMT on September 07, 2015

As Tropical Storm Grace struggles in the Atlantic (see below), today offers a chance to commemorate the victims of a much more devastating cyclone. Eighty years ago, on this federal holiday that recognizes U.S. workers, a group of World War I veterans toiling to improve life on the Florida Keys lost their lives in one of the great workplace tragedies of U.S. history. The strongest landfalling hurricane on record in the Western Hemisphere brought Category 5 winds and a terrifying storm surge to the upper Florida Keys on the late evening of Monday, September 2, 1935. The compact Labor Day hurricane of 1935 developed very rapidly from a system that was classified as a tropical storm less than two days before landfall in the Keys. Brushing the south end of Andros Island, it headed toward the north coast of Cuba before angling unexpectedly rightward and intensifying with astonishing speed as it approached the Keys, passing over the very warm waters of the Florida Straits. As the hurricane barreled across the Keys on Monday night, local weather observer Ivar Olsen measured 26.35” (892 mb) with a barometer that was later tested and proven reliable at the Weather Bureau. This remains the lowest value ever measured by a ground-based station in a tropical cyclone in the Western Hemisphere. (Dropsondes released by reconaissance aircraft produced sea-level pressure measurements of 882 mb on October 19, 2005, during Hurricane Wilma, and 870 mb on October 12, 1979, during Typhoon Tip). The 1935 hurricane went on to skirt the west coast of the Florida peninsula before accelerating northeastward, reentering the Atlantic off the Virginia coastline and producing rains that topped 16” in Maryland.

Figure 1. Track of the 1935 Labor Day hurricane.

Figure 2. Surface weather analysis from the U.S. Weather Bureau for September 4, 1935, showing the Labor Day hurricane two days after it struck the Keys. NOAA, via Wikipedia.

The storm’s rapid development combined with several other factors to produce the human tragedy that resulted. No satellite monitoring was available in 1935, and ships avoided tropical cyclones for good reason. As a result, forecasters at a brand-new Hurricane Warning Center, established that year in Jacksonville, Florida, by the U.S. Weather Bureau, could only surmise from nearby surface stations how quickly the storm was developing and how its motion was evolving. Persistence forecasting suggested that the storm’s west-southwest motion would take it to the north coast of Cuba, but there was little sign of its approach there on Monday morning. An American “barnstormer” pilot with the Cuba Army Air Corps, Capt. Leonard Povey, volunteered to carry out what is believed to be the first-ever hurricane-hunter flight, approaching the storm on Monday afternoon in an open-cockpit Curtis Hawk II aircraft. Povey found the hurricane further north than expected, and a hurricane warning was issued for the Keys at 4:30 pm, just a few hours before the hurricane struck full force.

Figure 3. Drawings of the Curtis Hawk II aircraft that Capt. Leonard Povey used to investigate the 1935 Labor Day hurricane in the world’s first known “hurricane hunter” flight. Image credit: NOAA Hurricane Research Division.

Figure 4. The rescue train derailed by the 1935 Labor Day hurricane before it had a chance to rescue the hundreds of veterans stationed on the Keys. Image credit: Wikipedia.

The most heartbreaking parts of the saga are vividly told in “Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935” (National Geographic, 2002), which I reviewed for Weatherwise magazine. (This interview with author Willie Drye hits many of the main points.) Hundreds of veterans had been deployed to the Keys to build the most difficult sections of the highway that now runs the length of the island chain, from Key West to Miami. Many veterans of World War I had struggled to find work and deal with postwar life, and the Great Depression hit them particularly hard. At the Keys, they were housed in hastily built barracks and tents that stood no chance of surviving a Category 5 hurricane. Superiors recognized the potential for disaster if a hurricane were to strike, but as “Storm of the Century” recounts in agonizing detail, a series of miscues--ranging from slack holiday schedules to telephone miscommunications to obstructions along the railway track to simple inertia--meant that a rescue train ran hours later than it should have. The train ended up pushed off its tracks by the storm; miraculously, everyone on board survived, but the train had not yet reached hundreds of the most vulnerable workers. At least 257 veterans and 228 civilians died in the winds and storm surge of that horrifying evening. (See video at bottom, which includes recent interviews with two survivors.]

How much at risk are the Keys today?
An 80th-anniversary symposium held on September 2 at the Keys History & Discovery Center in Key West looked back at the awful events of 1935 from the perspective of today’s hurricane risk. The presenters included local historian Jerry Wilkinson, who has studied the hurricane for decades and worked to establish permanent individual markers for the lost veterans, and former National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield, who discussed the current landscape of NWS and NHC hurricane warnings and the continued vulnerability of the Keys. A second night of commemoration will take place Tuesday, September 8, at the Keys History & Discovery Center. Curator Brad Bertelli will join British-based novelist and Florida native Vanessa Lafaye, author of “Under a Dark Summer Sky,” a work of historical fiction set during the 1935 hurricane.

Also participating in the September 2 event was Matt Moreland, who this spring became meteorologist in charge at the Key West NWS office--which began as an observing post in 1870, the same year that the NWS was established. In a phone chat, Moreland emphasized that the placid weather of the Key West location during much of the year is counterbalanced by the location’s risk to hurricane impacts. “Something like the 1935 hurricane still represents our worst-case scenario--a hurricane going from Category 1 to Cat 5 in 36 hours,” said Moreland. “Once you get to Cat 3 or higher, there is a threat of extensive flooding for all of the islands, and portions of the Overseas Highway as well.” On any given day, about 100,000 residents and tourists are strung along the 120-mile stretch of the Keys, which have only one highway escape route. It’s estimated that a full evacuation (including residents, tourists, and those with special needs) would need to begin 84 hours in advance.

Figure 5. A couple walks hand in hand as they brave flood waters several feet deep along South Street in Key West, Florida, after Hurricane Wilma passed through in the early morning hours of October 24, 2005. Along with some wind damage, the majority of the island was indundated. Image credit: Josh Ritchie/Getty Images.

The Keys have had several close calls this century, including 2005’s Hurricane Rita, which was in the process of intensifying to a Cat 3 while crossing over the Florida Straits south of the Keys. “If the track had come 30 or 40 miles further north, the lower Keys would have seen extensive damage,” said Moreland. “That kind of track error is not uncommon at 24 hours out.” Later in 2005, Hurricane Wilma flooded more than 60% of Key West, destroyed more than 10,000 vehicles, and inflicted more than $1 billion in damage across Monroe County (which includes all of the Keys). One of Moreland’s biggest concerns is complacency, along with the high turnover of the workers that keep tourism humming along the Keys. Outreach and decision support are critical parts of the NWS/Key West mission. Moreland and colleagues work year-round to maintain close ties with a wide range of partners, including local, county, and regional emergency managers; federal entities from the Coast Guard to the Navy to the National Park Service; and the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, which provides storm updates with official NWS information to hotels and resorts. According to Moreland, these strong relationships and the office’s teamwork-oriented approach ensure that decision makers in the Keys stay vigilant against the prospect of a 1935-type storm.

Figure 6. At the September 2, 2015, commemoration of the Labor Day 1935 hurricane at the Keys History & Discovery Center: (left to right) NWS/Key West forecaster Bill Cottrill; former NHC director Max Mayfield; NWS/Key West forecaster Krizia Negron; and NWS/Key West meteorologist in charge Matt Moreland. Image credit: Courtesy Matt Moreland.

Figure 7. A visible GOES-East satellite image of highly sheared Tropical Storm Grace, collected at 1545 GMT (11:45 am EDT) on Monday, September 7, 2015. Image credit: NOAA/NESDIS.

Grace under fire; Gulf bears watching later this week
Tropical Storm Grace failed to take advantage of the usual nighttime bump in thunderstorm activity, and it appears that Grace’s window for becoming a stronger system is rapidly closing. Wind shear to Grace’s north is forcing shower and thunderstorm activity toward Grace’s south side, as was the case with Tropical Storm Erika a few days ago. As Grace continues westward through the central Atlantic, with winds of only 45 mph, it will encounter increasing westerly wind shear and relatively dry air. In its 11 am EDT update, NHC projects Grace to be a post-tropical remnant low south of Puerto Rico by Saturday. Dynamical models are in general agreement, save for the suspiciously bullish GFDL model.

A weak upper-level low and surface trough now producing scattered thunderstorms in the eastern Gulf of Mexico will drift slowly westward through the week, perhaps intersecting with the tail end of a cool front in the western Gulf by this weekend. The 0000 GMT Monday run of the European model suggests the possiblity of some hybrid/subtropical development this weekend in the far western Gulf, with very rich moisture surging toward the Texas/Louisiana coast, and the 1200 GMT Monday run of the GFS model shows low surface pressure taking shape in the Bay of Campeche over the weekend. We’ll have plenty of time to watch for this potential development.

In the Northeast Pacific, Hurricane Linda has surged to Category 2 intensity, with top sustained winds of 100 mph. Linda may reach Category 3 strength before a rapid decline begins, as the hurricane’s track takes it toward progressively cooler water and drier air. Dynamical models generally turn Linda westward by the weekend, although some of Linda’s moisture may stream into the southwest United States later this week. Further west, Typhoon Kilo continues its slow weakening and recurvature well east of Hawaii, while newborn Tropical Storm Etau could bring heavy rain to Japan later this week as a weak tropical storm or depression.

Have a great Labor Day, everyone!

Bob Henson

Video 1. This Miami Herald video includes compelling photos from the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, as well as new interviews with Everett Albury and Alma Pinder Dalton, who were 6 and 11 when the hurricane struck. Video credit: Jenny Staletovich/Miami Herald staff. Thanks to wunderground member barbamz for locating this video.


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.