This storm’s extremely high winds, high storm surge, record low pressure, and high fatalities earned it the name of the most powerful ever to strike the United States.
The 1935 Labor Day Hurricane was the most powerful ever to strike the United States. It was not the deadliest in terms of fatalities but its extraordinary high winds, huge storm surge, and lowest barometric pressure ever recorded in the United States up to that time rank it as number one in intensity and destructive power. It was appropriately named “Storm of the Century.”
This category 5 event made landfall along the Florida Keys on Labor Day, September 2, 1935. People on the Keys were hit with 200 mph wind gusts, a storm surge of fifteen feet, and waves that carried everything before them.
It formed over the Atlantic and, after striking the Bahamas, it headed for Florida, reaching the Keys with sustained winds of 185 mph. Its central pressure was 26.35 of mercury, a level that was not surpassed until Hurricane Gilbert arrived in 1988. The population of Florida, including the Keys, was growing very fast in the mid-thirties. The disastrous outcome of the land grab of the 1926s had been forgotten.
A railway line had been built at a cost of almost $50 million to link the Keys with the rest of the state. Large numbers of settlers and tourists kept arriving every year. By the summer of 1935 there were more than 12,000 residents there plus another 750 who were veterans, hired by the Federal Government to build a road linking the islands of the Keys.
Early on Sunday morning, September 1, the weather bureau, having noted that this storm had reached hurricane status, issued an advisory that it was going to move through the Straits of Florida and pass on into the Gulf. Given the level of skills in meteorology at the time, and the limited number of stations relaying data to the bureau, this forecast was a reasonably estimate. By the evening of the day the advisory was extended to include all of southern Florida as well as areas along the west coast of the state. Very few people received this information.
Those who did were the residents who had lived in the area for some years and were familiar with hurricanes. They were the ones who called the weather bureau frequently to get the latest information and shared it with others. They were also the ones who made all possible preparations to protect themselves from a strike. More recent arrivals, including the administrators of the veterans’ road-construction project, decided to go with the earlier advisory that the storm would pass west south of the Keys.
The Bureau’s estimate of the storm’s location on Labor Day morning was out by almost three hundred miles. Furthermore, because they did not know at that time that it was a very narrow hurricane, less than ten miles across, they had little advance warning of the nature or direction of its forward winds. Before 11 A.M. the bureau decided to include the Keys as a place that might be hit. The Administrator of the veterans’ project decided at that time to get a train backed down to the Keys on the one track line to bring veterans away from the danger area.
There were extended delays in getting this done. Because of the holiday no train was waiting and ready at the town of Homestead. It was after 5 P.M. before the needed train began to back down into the Keys. By 8 P.M. on Labor Day the storm struck. The train had not yet reached the middle Keys. Ten cars were tossed off the train by powerful waves that were surging over the islands. More than four hundred lost their lives.
Even today, with all the advances made in weather forecasting, a storm of the intensity of this Labor Day one would destroy every building in the keys. Few would survive. The only remedy in the face of an approaching hurricane is evacuation and this is the course consistently taken now especially since the total population of the Keys has risen to well over 100,000 when tourists are included in the total number.
After striking the Keys, the hurricane continued up the west coast of Florida and landed again on the Florida Panhandle as a category 2 hurricane on September 4. It then passed over Georgia and South Carolina and back into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Virginia.