Keys History – The 1935 Labor Day Hurricane

The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 was the third strongest Atlantic Hurricane in history, and the strongest ever to make landfall. The storm began its formation east of the Bahamas during the last few days of August 1935. At the time, there was no sophisticated weather forecasting tools. Despite this, the US Weather Bureau issued its first storm advisory on August 31, 1935. A day later on September 1st, the storm grew and reached hurricane status, mainly due to the slow movement over the warm shallow waters approaching the Florida Keys.

1935_2[1]On September 2, 1935, Labor Day, the stormed reached its peak intensity of 892 mb and sustained winds of 185 mph as it made landfall between Miami and Key West. The exact spot of landfall was hard to determine, but it is believed to be around the Long Key area.

The damage it left in its wake was devastating. The destruction path was 40 miles wide from Key Largo to Marathon. Buildings and trees were leveled and destroyed. Even the railroad was destroyed and was never rebuilt. The death toll was staggering – 485 people perished, half of which were World War 1 veterans hired to work on the railroad. The cause of death for most was drowning, but rumor has it that some died by sandblasting, a mixture of sand and high winds.

The initial forecast by the Weather Bureau said the storm would pass through the Florida Straits which prevented early evacuation. This error proved to be fatal as the late warning contributed to considerably higher death tolls.

Gale force winds and flooding continued into Tuesday as the storm moved into the Gulf of Mexico, continuing to burden rescue efforts. The storm continued up the gulf along the west coast of Florida and weakened significantly before making landfall again near the town of Cedar Keys, Florida on September 4, 1935.

Standing just east of U.S. Route 1 at mile marker 82 in Islamorada, near where Islamorada’s post office had been, is a simple monument designed by the Florida Division of the Federal Art Project and constructed using Keys limestone by the Works Progress Administration. Unveiled in 1937, with more than 4,000 people in attendance, a frieze depicts palm trees amid curling waves, fronds bent in the wind. In front of the sculpture, a ceramic-tile mural of the Keys covers a stone crypt, which holds victims’ ashes from the makeshift funeral pyres. The memorial was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places on March 16, 1995.