Special to The Weekly
By Ron Trumbla, NOAA Public Affairs for NWS Southern Region
On September 2, 1935, hundreds of World War I veterans and locals waited anxiously for an evacuation train from Miami as a small but vicious hurricane bore down on the Florida Keys from the southeast. The train never made it – and neither did most of the people waiting for it.
The Labor Day storm was the first of only three Category 5 hurricanes to make landfall in the United States. It roared through the Upper and Middle Florida Keys with winds estimated between 150 to 200 miles per hour and a 20-foot storm surge. The combination washed 10 cars from the relief train off the tracks – leaving only the locomotive.
An American Red Cross report lists the death toll at 408, the majority of which were veterans working on a construction project for the Works Progress Administration. Widespread destruction throughout the Keys caused an estimated $6 million in damages ($96 million in 2010 dollars).
An article published by the American Meteorological Society’s Monthly Weather Review, recounts some personal observations from a report submitted by U.S. Weather Bureau cooperative observer J.E. Duane. He recalled seeing, “A beam, six by eight inches and 18 feet long, blown from the north side of the camp about 300 yards through a house, wrecking it and nearly striking three persons—and water was three feet deep from the top of the railroad grade, or about 16 feet.”
As Duane tried to take refuge in another house, it began to break apart under the onslaught of wind and wave. “I was blown outside into the sea; got hung up in broken fronds of a coconut tree and hung on for dear life. I was then struck by some object and knocked unconscious.” When he awoke, Duane found himself lodged in a tree about 20 feet above ground and the water had receded. He was one of the lucky ones.
While the results would still be devastating if a similar hurricane were to strike the Keys today, the thousands of residents and visitors there would not have to rely on luck.
Today, the National Weather Service toolbox includes powerful computers, better numerical models, enhanced research capabilities; and, more observations over the sea using a diverse array of buoys, ships, aircraft and satellites – resulting in dramatically improved National Hurricane Center track predictions.
Doppler radar and other land-based data gathering systems also helps the forecasters provide a wide range of Inland Tropical Storm or Hurricane Watches and Warnings for their area. All of the educational and technological advances, coupled with an intensive training regimen, serve to provide citizens with longer warning lead times and more accurate weather information.
Key West forecast office employees also work closely with the emergency management community to help educate the public on the dangers and the proper response when hazardous weather threatens.
Monroe County Emergency Management Director Irene Toner believes residents in the Keys are better prepared to respond to hurricane threats today – than at any time in the past. She notes all the advancements, “allow us to take protective action well ahead of time—to ensure everyone’s safety.”