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1935 Labor Day hurricane facts for kids

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Hurricane Three
Category 5 major hurricane (SSHWS/NWS)
Labor Day hurricane 1935-09-04 weather map.gif
Weather Bureau surface weather map of the hurricane moving up the west coast of Florida
Formed August 29, 1935 (1935-08-29)
Dissipated September 10, 1935 (1935-09-10)
(Extratropical after September 6, 1935 (1935-09-06))
Highest winds 1-minute sustained: 185 mph (295 km/h)
Lowest pressure 892 mbar (hPa); 26.34 inHg
(Lowest recorded in the United States, Third-lowest recorded in the Atlantic)
Fatalities 423
Damage $100 million (1935 USD)
Areas affected The Bahamas, Florida Keys, Southwest and North Florida (Big Bend), Georgia, The Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, New England
Part of the 1935 Atlantic hurricane season

The Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 (formally known as Hurricane Three) was the most intense Atlantic hurricane to make landfall on record in terms of pressure, and tied with Hurricane Dorian in 2019 for the strongest landfalling Atlantic hurricane by maximum sustained winds, with winds of 185 mph (295 km/h). It was also the most intense Atlantic hurricane on record until Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. The fourth tropical cyclone, third tropical storm, second hurricane, and second major hurricane of the 1935 Atlantic hurricane season, the Labor Day hurricane was one of four Category 5 hurricanes on record to strike the contiguous United States, along with Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Hurricane Camille in 1969, and Hurricane Michael in 2018. In addition, it was the third most intense Atlantic hurricane on record in terms of barometric pressure, behind Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 and Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

The hurricane intensified rapidly, passing near Long Key on the evening of Monday, September 2. The region was swept by a massive storm surge as the eye passed over the area. The waters quickly receded after carving new channels connecting the bay with the ocean; however, gale-force winds and high seas persisted into Tuesday, preventing rescue efforts. The storm continued northwestward along the Florida west coast, weakening before its second landfall near Cedar Key, Florida, on September 4.

The compact and intense hurricane caused catastrophic damage in the upper Florida Keys, as a storm surge of approximately 18 to 20 feet (5.5 to 6.1 m) swept over the low-lying islands. The hurricane's strong winds and the surge destroyed nearly all the structures between Tavernier and Marathon. The town of Islamorada was obliterated. Portions of the Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railway were severely damaged or destroyed. In addition, many veterans died in work camps created for the construction of the Overseas Highway, in part due to poor working conditions. The hurricane also caused additional damage in northwest Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas.

Meteorological history

1935 Labor Day hurricane track
Storm path

An area of disturbed weather developed northeast of the Turks Islands toward the end of August. By August 31, a definite tropical depression appeared near Long Island in the southeastern Bahamas and quickly intensified. It reached hurricane intensity near the south end of Andros Island on September 1. The storm then explosively intensified and turned toward the Florida Keys at a speed of 10 mph. The storm had an eye 9–10 miles (14–16 km) across. The storm made landfall late on September 2 near Long Key, at peak intensity, with an intensity of 892 millibars (26.3 inHg) and 1-minute sustained winds of 185 mph (295 km/h). After leaving the Keys, the storm weakened as it skirted the Florida gulf coast, making a second landfall at Cedar Keys. The storm sped up and rapidly weakened over the Mid-Atlantic states, causing heavy rainfall, with the highest total being 16.7 inches (420 mm) in Easton, Maryland. The storm finally emerged over the open Atlantic near Cape Henry. The storm continued into the North Atlantic Ocean, where it merged with an extratropical cyclone on September 10.

Most intense Atlantic hurricanes
Rank Hurricane Season Pressure
hPa inHg
1 Wilma 2005 882 26.05
2 Gilbert 1988 888 26.23
3 "Labor Day" 1935 892 26.34
4 Rita 2005 895 26.43
5 Allen 1980 899 26.55
6 Camille 1969 900 26.58
7 Katrina 2005 902 26.64
8 Mitch 1998 905 26.73
Dean 2007
10 Maria 2017 908 26.81
Source: HURDAT

The first recorded instance of an aircraft flown for the specific purpose of locating a hurricane occurred on the afternoon of September 2, 1935. The Weather Bureau's 1:30 PM advisory placed the center of the hurricane at north latitude 23° 20', west longitude 80° 15', moving slowly westward. This was about 27 miles (43 km) north of Isabela de Sagua, Villa Clara, Cuba, and 145 miles (233 km) east of Havana. Captain Leonard Povey of the Aviation Corps of the Cuban Army (Cuerpo de Aviación del Ejército de Cuba) volunteered to investigate the threat to the capital. Flying a Curtis Hawk II, Captain Povey, an American expatriate, who was the Aviation Corps' chief training officer, observed the storm north of its reported position. Because he was flying an open-cockpit biplane, he opted not to fly into the storm. He later proposed an aerial hurricane patrol. Nothing further came of this idea until June 1943, when Colonel Joe Duckworth and Lieutenant Ralph O'Hair flew into a hurricane near Galveston, Texas.

Records

The Labor Day hurricane was the most intense tropical cyclone known to make landfall in the Western Hemisphere, having the lowest sea level pressure ever officially recorded on land—a central pressure of 892 mbar (26.35 inHg)—suggesting an intensity of between 162 and 164 knots (186 and 189 mph). The somewhat compensating effects of a slow (7 knots, 8.1 mph) translational velocity along with an extremely tiny radius of maximum wind (5 nmi, 5.8 mi) led to an analyzed intensity at landfall of 160 kn, 180 mph; rounded to the nearest multiple of 5: 185 mph, 298 km/h). The 1935 Labor Day hurricane is tied with 2019's Hurricane Dorian for the highest intensity for a landfalling Atlantic hurricane in HURDAT2, as 1969's Hurricane Camille has been reanalyzed in 2014 to have the third highest landfalling intensity with 150 kn, 170 mph (172.6 mph, 277.8 km/h; rounded to the nearest multiple of 5: 175 mph and 280 km/h).

Preparations

Northeast storm warnings were ordered displayed from Fort Pierce to Fort Myers in the September 1, 9:30 AM Weather Bureau advisory. Upon receipt of this advisory the U.S. Coast Guard Station, Miami, FL, sent a plane along the coast to advise boaters and campers of the impending danger by dropping message blocks. A second flight was made on Sunday afternoon. All planes were placed in the hangar and its door closed at 10:00 AM Monday. The 3:30 AM advisory, September 2 (Labor Day), predicted the disturbance "will probably pass through the Florida Straits Monday" and cautioned "against high tides and gales Florida Keys and ships in path." The 1:30 PM advisory ordered hurricane warnings for the Key West district which extended north to Key Largo. At around 2:00 PM, Fred Ghent, Assistant Administrator, Florida Emergency Relief Administration, requested a special train to evacuate the veterans work camps located in the upper keys. It departed Miami at 4:25 PM; delayed by a draw bridge opening, obstructions across the track, poor visibility and the necessity to back the locomotive below Homestead (so it could head out on the return trip) the train finally arrived at the Islamorada station on Upper Matecumbe Key at about 8:20 PM. This coincided with an abrupt wind shift from the northeast (Florida Bay) to southeast (Atlantic Ocean) and the arrival on the coast of the storm surge.

Impact

Strongest landfalling Atlantic hurricanesdagger
Rank Hurricane Season Wind speed
mph km/h
1 "Labor Day" 1935 185 295
Dorian 2019
3 Irma 2017 180 285
4 Janet 1955 175 280
Camille 1969
Anita 1977
David 1979
Dean 2007
9 "Cuba" 1924 165 270
Andrew 1992
Maria 2017
Source: HURDAT, AOML/HRD
daggerStrength refers to maximum sustained wind speed
upon striking land.

Three ships were reported to have run afoul during the storm. The Danish motorship Leise Maersk was carried over and grounded nearly 4 miles away near Upper Matecumbe Key, although there was no loss of life. The engine room was flooded and the ship was disabled. The American tanker Pueblo lost control near 24°40′N 80°25′W / 24.667°N 80.417°W / 24.667; -80.417 around 2 pm on September 2 and was pushed around the storm's center, ending up in Molasses Reef nearly eight hours later. The passenger steamship Dixie ran aground on French Reef. She was re-floated and towed to New York on September 19. No fatalities resulted from the incident.

Train derailed by the 1935 hurricane
Florida East Coast Railway Overseas Railroad relief train derailed near Islamorada, Florida during the 1935 Labor Day hurricane.

On Upper Matecumbe Key, near Islamorada, an eleven-car evacuation train encountered a powerful storm surge topped by cresting waves. Eleven cars were swept from the tracks, leaving only the locomotive and tender upright and still on the rails. Remarkably, everyone on the train survived. The locomotive and tender were both barged back to Miami several months later.

The hurricane left a path of near-total destruction in the Upper Keys, centered on what is today the village of Islamorada. The eye of the storm passed a few miles to the southwest creating a calm of about 40 minutes duration over Lower Matecumbe and 55 minutes (9:20–10:15 PM) over Long Key. At Camp #3 on Lower Matecumbe the surge arrived near the end of the calm with the wind close behind. Nearly every structure was demolished, and some bridges and railway embankments were washed away. The links—rail, road, and ferry boats—that chained the islands together were broken. The main transportation route linking the Keys to mainland Florida had been a single railroad line, the Florida Overseas Railroad portion of the Florida East Coast Railway. The Islamorada area was devastated, although the hurricane's destructive path was narrower than most tropical cyclones. Its eye was eight miles (13 km.) across and the fiercest winds extended 15 miles (24 km.) off the center, less than 1992's Hurricane Andrew, which was also a relatively small and catastrophic Category 5 hurricane. Craig Key, Long Key, and Upper Matecumbe and Lower Matecumbe Keys suffered the worst. The storm caused wind and flood damage along the Florida panhandle and into Georgia, and significant damage to the Tampa Bay Area.

The storm brought over 5 in (130 mm) of rain to parts of Georgia when it passed over the state between September 4–5. The heavy rainfall in southern Georgian counties led to the spoilage of cotton. Attendant winds also ruined crops and inflicted minor damage to property.

The United States Coast Guard and other federal and state agencies organized evacuation and relief efforts. Boats and airplanes carried injured survivors to Miami. The railroad was never rebuilt, but temporary bridges and ferry landings were under construction as soon as materials arrived. On March 29, 1938, the last gap in the Overseas Highway linking Key West to the mainland was completed. The new highway incorporated the roadbed and surviving bridges of the railway.

Aftermath

Memorials

Islamorada

Standing just east of U.S. 1 at mile marker 82 in Islamorada, near where Islamorada's post office stood, is a monument designed by the Florida Division of the Federal Art Project and constructed using Keys limestone ("keystone") by the Works Progress Administration. It was unveiled on November 14, 1937, with several hundred people attending. President Roosevelt sent a telegram to the dedication in which he expressed "heartfelt sympathy" and said, "the disaster which made desolate the hearts of so many of our people brought a personal sorrow to me because some years ago I knew many residents of the keys." The welcoming committee included Key West Mayor Willard M. Albury, and other local officials. Hines had been invited to speak but he declined. His attitude to the project was unenthusiastic. In a letter to Williams on June 24, 1937, regarding what to do with the many skeletons of veterans recently discovered in the Keys, he wrote: ″It occurs to me that if a large memorial is erected adjacent to this highway at the place of the disaster it will be observed by all persons using the highway and will serve as a constant reminder of the unfortunate catastrophe which occurred.″ Hines recommended the remains be buried at Woodlawn. 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, commingled with the skeletons.

Although this is a gravesite, not a single name appears anywhere on the monument. This is not a requirement for the estimated 228 civilian dead, 55 of whom were buried where found or in various cemeteries. A memorial with identifying information is a statutory entitlement for the veterans. 170 were cremated or never identified. The VA has chosen not to memorialize them, despite current Federal law and President Roosevelt's order that Hines provides a burial with full military honors for every veteran not claimed by his family.

Florida Keys Memorial Dedication Nov 14 1937
Dedication of Florida Keys Memorial, Nov. 14, 1937
The Florida Keys Memorial, view of monument 4856
Relief and dedication
Hurricane Monument, Woodlawn Park North Cemetery, Miami, FL
Hurricane Monument, Woodlawn Park North Cemetery, Miami, FL, on site of mass grave

The memorial was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places on March 16, 1995. A Heritage Monument Trail plaque mounted on a coral boulder before the memorial reads:

The Florida Keys Memorial, known locally as the "Hurricane Monument," was built to honor hundreds of American veterans and local citizens who perished in the "Great Hurricane" on Labor Day, September 2, 1935. Islamorada sustained winds of 200 miles per hour and a barometer reading of 26.35 inches for many hours on that fateful holiday; most local buildings and the Florida East Coast Railway were destroyed by what remains the most savage hurricane on record. Hundreds of World War I veterans who had been camped in the Matecumbe area while working on the construction of U.S. Highway One for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) were killed. In 1937 the cremated remains of approximately 300 people were placed within the tiled crypt in front of the monument. The monument is composed of native keystone, and its striking frieze depicts coconut palm trees bending before the force of hurricane winds while the waters from an angry sea lap at the bottom of their trunks. Monument construction was funded by the WPA and regional veterans' associations. Over the years the Hurricane Monument has been cared for by local veterans, hurricane survivors, and descendants of the victims.

Local residents hold ceremonies at the monument every year on Labor Day (on the Monday holiday) and on Memorial Day to honor the veterans and the civilians who died in the hurricane.

Woodlawn Park Cemetery

On January 31, 1936, Harvey W. Seeds Post No. 29, American Legion, Miami, Florida, petitioned FERA for the deed to the Woodlawn plot. The Legion would use the empty grave sites for the burial of indigent veterans and accept responsibility for care of the plot. After some initial confusion as to the actual owner, the State of Florida approved the title transfer. A monument was placed on the plot, inscribed: Erected by Harvey W. Seeds Post No. 29, The American Legion, in Memory of Our Comrades Who Lost Their Lives on the Florida Keys during the 1935 Hurricane, Lest We Forget.

As with the Islamorada memorial, no names are listed, nor are the individual grave sites marked. The VA again chose not to obey the President's order, this time to rebury the unclaimed bodies at Arlington. Two bodies were, however, exhumed from Woodlawn cemetery by the families: Brady C. Lewis (on November 12, 1936), and Thomas K. Moore (on January 20, 1937), the latter of whom was reburied at Arlington. Five more received grave markers at Woodlawn, leaving 74 unmarked graves of identified veterans. Efforts are ongoing to mark all these graves.

One other veteran killed in the storm rests at Arlington, Daniel C. Main. His was a special case, the only veteran who died in the camps who was neither cremated in the Keys nor buried at Woodlawn. Main was the camp medical director and was killed in the collapse of the small hospital at Camp #1. His body was quickly recovered by survivors and shipped to his family before the embargo.

Veterans Key

On February 27, 2006, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names approved a proposal by Jerry Wilkinson, President, Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys, to name a small island off the southern tip of Lower Matecumbe Key for the veterans who died in the hurricane. It is near where Camp #3 was located. Veterans Key and several concrete pilings are all that remain of the 1935 bridge construction project.

Department of Veterans Affairs Actions

Government furnished grave markers are provided for eligible veterans buried in National Cemeteries, State veterans cemeteries and private cemeteries. Under VA regulations the applicant for a marker may only be the veteran's next of kin; so, too, for memorials when the body is not available for burial. Prior to a 2009 revision, not enforced until 2012, any person with knowledge of the veteran could apply. The revision prompted objections from groups and volunteers working to mark the many unmarked veterans' graves, mostly from the Civil War era. They argued that the next-of-kin (if any) was often impossible to locate and that the very existence of an unmarked grave was evidence of the family's indifference. Two bills were introduced in Congress, H. R. 2018 and S. 2700 which would have again allowed unrelated applicants. Both bills died in committee. On October 1, 2014, the VA proposed a rule change which would include in the categories of applicants unrelated individuals.

Films and video games

  • In the 1948 Warner Brothers film Key Largo, Lionel Barrymore describes the horrors of the 1935 hurricane to an anxious Edward G. Robinson, as another hurricane bears down on the Florida Keys. Special effects were used on the Warner lot in the film to re-create a powerful hurricane.
  • The 1997 documentary Hurricane '35: The Deadly Deluge, by Miles Associates Productions, includes interviews with survivors of the 1935 hurricane. Download available at 1935 Hurricane Documentary 27 min. video
  • Nature's Fury: Storm of the Century, by Tower Productions, was a 2006 made-for-TV (History Channel) docudrama of the 1935 Hurricane.
  • A Golden Wake, a point and click adventure video game, features main character Alfie Banks traveling down to the Florida Keys during the 1935 Labor Day hurricane to rescue George E. Merrick during the game's climax.

Novels and short stories

Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote the short story "September-Remember" soon after the hurricane. It appeared in the Saturday Evening Post; 12/7/1935, Vol. 208, Issue 23, p 12. It was anthologized in 1990:

  • The storm also features in novelist Craig McDonald's novel Toros & Torsos (2008, Bleak House Books), incorporating Ernest Hemingway.
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