Friday, March 9, 2012

Florida History: Most intense hurricane ever? NOT Katrina or Camille ...

By Jane Feehan

For many, Hurricane Katrina established a reference point, a certain consciousness about extremes in weather. With all its notoriety, Katrina holds top place on the list of hurricanes recorded since 1851 in one National Hurricane Center category*: the costliest to hit the U.S. with recovery expenses surpassing $110 billion.  The most intense storm is the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. Winds were recorded as high as 200 mph in pockets. A 2012 recalculation officially upped winds from 160 mph to 185 mph, second only to those of Hurricane Camille.

Weather observers in Miami and Havana tracked a storm nearing Andros Island in the Bahamas on Sunday, September 1, 1935. Forecasters did not expect it to strengthen above 75 miles mph on a path between Cuba and Key West. Weather predicting was a primitive science then. The next day it developed into a vicious Category 5 and headed for the middle Keys, the Matecumbes, where hundreds of World War I vets were encamped in flimsy tents and shacks. They were building the Overseas Highway to Key West as part of a work program during the Depression. Because of the holiday, many laborers were already gone but about 200 remained. 

Warnings went out about 2:30 p.m. September 2, but there was little anyone could do except send a rescue train owned by the Florida East Coast railroad. The train, Engine 447, driven by a very brave J.J. Haycraft reached the camps at about 8 p.m., the height of the storm. Frightened men, women and children struggled to board in the dark.  Within minutes after all were safely inside, a wave reaching an estimated 18-20 feet swept over the train, knocking it off tracks and filling coaches with water. Most thought they were about to
Miami News, Sept. 3, 1935

Miraculously, no one was seriously hurt on Engine 447 but 414 vets and residents living in the Matecumbes lost their lives that day. Some say the death toll was closer to 600. Writer Ernest Hemmingway, living in Key West at the time, was a member of the first rescue party; his description of the hurricane’s aftermath is graphic, sickening. 

Miami News, Sept. 4, 1935
A very small storm, the eye of the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane was estimated to be eight miles in diameter with bands extending 30 miles across. Barometric pressure, the measure of intensity, was recorded at 26.35 inches or 892 millibars after it hit land. Hurricane Camille’s (1969) pressure was 26.84 inches or 909 millibars when it struck Mississippi. Katrina ranks just below Camille with a pressure of 27.17 or 920 millibars. Other storms may have had lower pressure scores but while at sea before land fall.  Also of interest: The 1935 storm, as did Hurricane Andrew in 1992, occurred in a year of below-average activity. Andrew’s official  pressure was 27.23 inches or 922 millibars.

The deadliest storm was the Galveston hurricane of 1900 that took 8,000 lives.

* NHC categorizes deadliest, costliest and most intense (strongest). See report below.
Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved. Jane Feehan.
For the 1926 hurricane, see:

For the 1928 hurricane, see:

For the 1947 Fort Lauderdale hurricane, see: 

Standiford, Les. The Last Train to Paradise. New York: Crown Publishers (2002)
Miami News, Sept. 3, 1935
Miami News, Sept. 4, 1935

Tags: Florida hurricanes, most intense hurricane, strongest hurricane, hurricane history, the 1935 Labor Day hurricane, Overseas Highway, category 5 hurricane, film researcher

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