A perspective on the “unprecedented” strength of modern hurricanes
Guest essay by Donald R. Baucom
1935 Labor Day hurricane track. Uses the color scheme from the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. Image: NOAA/NHC/Wikipedia
In 1948, Lauren Bacall and husband Humphrey Bogart made their fourth and last movie together. In “Key Largo,” Bogart played Frank McCloud, an Army veteran who had recently returned from World War II. Lauren Bacall was Nora Temple, the widow of a soldier who died while serving in McCloud’s unit in Italy. In addition to Bogart and Bacall, the film featured Edward G. Robinson as tough-guy, gangster Johnny Rocco and Lionel Barrymore as James Temple, an aged hotel owner who is Nora’s father-in-law.
After the war, McCloud came to visit the Temples to tell them of the bravery of James Temple’s son and inform them where he was buried. When McCloud arrived, he found that Rocco and his gang had taken over the hotel and were holding the Temples hostage.
As the story unfolds, a hurricane approaches the hotel and begins to build in intensity. Never having experienced such a storm, Rocco is noticeably disturbed and asks James Temple how bad the storm could be. Temple answers by describing a hurricane that had hit the area in 1935.
Rocco: Old man! How bad could it get? [Pause] I asked you a question. Do you hear me? How bad could it get?
Temple: Well, the worst storm we ever had was back in ’35. Wind whipped up a big wave and sent it busting right over Matecumbe Key. Eight hundred people were washed out to sea.
Rocco: How far away was that from here?
Temple: Two miles.
Perhaps in an effort to further shake Rocco, Temple exaggerated the number killed in the 1935 storm. He also lumped the two Matecumbe Keys together and placed them closer to Key Largo than they actually are (Key Largo is a little over twenty miles away from Upper Matecumbe Key, the closer of the two). Temple’s exaggeration of the number killed notwithstanding, the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 was a monster.
To begin with, the 1935 storm was the first category 5 hurricane to strike the U.S. and is still the most intense hurricane ever to hit the country. The atmospheric pressure associated with this storm dropped to 892 millibars, 17 millibars lower than the pressure for Camille, the second most intense storm, which hit the Gulf coast in 1969. (The lower the pressure, the greater the intensity of the storm.) By way of further comparison, the pressure for Hurricane Sandy, which struck the northeast in October 2012, was only 940 millibars.
Second, the Labor Day storm killed 485 people. Given growth and development in America’s coastal areas since 1935, the National Hurricane Center estimates that this storm would have killed 9,150 had it occurred in the twenty-first century. On the other hand, Sandy resulted in just over seventy deaths in the United States.
The bulk of those killed in Florida, 257, were military veterans who were living in make-shift government camps while they worked on projects for the Civilian Conservation Corps. There were seven of these camps in Florida at the time of the storm, but only the three in the upper keys were threatened by the hurricane. The story of the effort to rescue the veterans in the three imperiled camps is perhaps the most dramatic and tragic episode associated with the 1935 storm.
When officials realized the danger the storm posed, they sent a train from Miami to evacuate the threatened camps. Consisting of six coaches, two baggage cars, three box cars, and the locomotive and its tender, the rescue train was to proceed to the southwestern end of Lower Matacumbe Key where the southernmost endangered camp was located. After picking up the veterans at this camp, the train would return to the north, picking up veterans at the camps on Upper Matacumbe and Windley Keys.
In the event, on its outbound journey the train got no further south than the Islamorada train station on Upper Matacumbe Key. Here, the wind and a storm surge of eighteen feet swept all the cars off the track with the exception of the locomotive and its tender.
The huge locomotive itself weighed over 300,000 pounds to which the tender added an additional 200,000 pounds. The great mass of this locomotive system kept it from being swept from the tracks.
The failure of the rescue mission meant that the occupants of the veteran camps would be left to face the fury of the storm with totally inadequate shelter that often was nothing more than a tent. It was thus virtually inevitable that a large number of the veterans would perish in the storm.
Another measure of the power of the 1935 storm is its wind strength. To be classified as a category five storm, its winds had to exceed 155 miles per hour. One estimate indicated that the storm’s wind speed may have reached 200 miles per hour with gusts of even higher speeds. Such winds would and did produce effects normally only associated with the intense winds of a tornado. Sandy’s winds reached only 115 miles per hour.
While Sandy’s storm surge was less than 14 feet, that of the 1935 hurricane reached 18 feet when it washed across Upper Matecumbe Key as noted above.
We are often confused when reporters use cost figures to suggest that today’s storms are more powerful than those that occurred before the current debate over global warming. The level of damage produced by a hurricane tells us less about its intensity than where and when it strikes land. Coastal areas of the United States have undergone extensive development since 1935. Thus, more recent storms, even if weaker than earlier storms, can produce comparatively greater destruction.
Without adequate knowledge of past storms, it is easy for reporters to conclude that modern storms are of “unprecedented” strength and thus mislead their readers. In fact, the more one knows about the history of weather events the better one understands that very few if any are truly unprecedented. Indeed, where the weather is concerned, we would all do well to remember the biblical observation: there is nothing new under the sun.