The most powerful hurricane in its history hit Key West on September 10 1919. First sighted taking shape in the Lesser Antilles, it had been followed for a week as it travelled past the Dominican Republic into the Bahamas.
The severe storm intensified as it turned west, heading for the Florida Straits as a Category Four ‘large hurricane’. The US Weather Bureau noted the barometric pressure as a terrifying 27.37 inches (927 millibars) in the hurricane’s center — the fourth lowest ever recorded.
Key West was well prepared, but with winds of over 60 kph (40 mph) sustained for 38 consecutive hours and lashed by 30 cm (13 in) of rain, damage was severe. Many houses were flattened, but at this point the casualties were mainly among shipping still at sea. Many ships just disappeared, like the Spanish passenger liner Valbanera, which was unable to enter Havana harbor because of the storm, and went down with only a deckchair as a trace of its 488 passengers and crew.
Having pounded the Keys, the hurricane kept its strength across the Gulf of Mexico. By now, there were no ships at sea to report its position and the Weather Bureau in Corpus Christi on the Texas coast downgraded their forecast in the belief that it had turned towards Louisiana. Too late, they saw their own barometer drop again. With renewed strength, the hurricane smashed into Corpus Christi with 5 m (16 ft) waves and sustained blasts of 200 kph (125 mph) winds.
Residents had stood down their defenses and in the catastrophic wreckage of their homes, factories and businesses hundreds died or disappeared, washed into the raging sea. Across Nueces Bay, 11 km (7 mi) away at White’s Point, 121 bodies (and 87 survivors!) turned up. Downtown, Corpus Christi was a pile of dripping debris.
When was the The Florida Keys Hurricane: September 9-14 1919
Where was the The Florida Keys Hurricane: The Atlantic, Florida Keys, Gulf of Mexico and southeast Texas Coast
What was the The Florida Keys Hurricane death toll: The official total is about 800 dead, of whom 500 were lost at sea, and 287 killed in Corpus Christi. But Corpus Christi was seeking official backing to develop a deep-water port, and determinedly underplayed the disaster. Its official ‘287’ death toll conflicts with local authorities who put it at ‘not less than 400, probably nearer 1,000’. Key West suffered fewer casualties only because it had battened down – and that couldn’t save many of its buildings.
You should know: in Key West you can see a town shrine called ‘the Grotto’. Built by nuns outside the Roman Catholic Church in 1920, it carries the inscription: ’As long as the Grotto stands. Key West will never again experience the full brunt of a hurricane’. So far, so good(ish).