The Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935

A perspective on the “unprecedented” strength of modern hurricanes

Guest essay by Donald R. Baucom

1935_labor_day_hurricane

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.

Labor_Day_hurricane_1935-09-04_weather_map[1]

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.

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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.

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Well said!

John W. Garrett

The Florida East Coast Railroad line from the mainland to Key West was heavily damaged by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 and, ultimately, resulted in the elimination of FEC rail service south of Dade County.

DirkH

Thanks a lot, very interesting bit of history!

Bob Droege

Compares better to Rita and Wilma and Katrina and Mitch and Dean, but mentioning that fully half of the strongest known hurricanes in the Atlantic basin have occurred this century is going to go over like warm spit on cold pizza.

North Atlantic SST at the time of :
Hurricane 1935 – 20.7 C
Sandy 2012 – 21.1 C

Bob Droege

Put an Ivan instead of Mitch there, sorry.

Great post.
The more past history people know, the less likely they will be to be bamboozled by media hype. Both Sandy and Irene were nowhere near as bad as historic storms, but the hype was “unprecedented.”
This post from last year at this time takes on the issue, (and McKibben,) and if nothing else predicted the post-Sandy hype: http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/08/21/hurricane-warning-mckibben-alert/

TAG

AGW zealots often cherrypick to try to prove a point and as a result their credibility has suffered. This posting could be considered to be an example of this. Shouldn’t this be studiously avoided.

Mike Maguire

2 of the hurricanes that to me, seem closer to resembling Sandy as far as location and especially becoming hybrids/extratropical are Hazel in 1954 and the Great New England Hurricane of 1938(before they were named).
http://www4.ncsu.edu/~nwsfo/storage/cases/19541015/
http://www.hurricanescience.org/history/storms/1930s/GreatNewEngland/
It should be noted that both of these hurricanes were much more intense than Sandy.

John

The hurricane of 1938 had a 17 foot storm surge and devastated souther New England. In Westerly RI, it lifted a relatives house of its foundation on the beach and deposited it whole with my aunt, uncle and 2 children inside a half a mile inland. Recent hurricanes have been very mild.

James Schrumpf

The article left out the most chilling quote from Barrymore’s description of the storm:
“They were finding bodies in the mangroves for months afterward…”

Margaret (from Miami)

@Bob Droege
Betsy was the first hurricane seen by satellite technology…in 1965. If we had that and dropsonde technology as far back as the 1920s a lot of the storms that landed in the US as Cat 3s (like Katrina, Rita, Ivan and Wilma did) would have had their lowest pressures registered out at sea like those examples did.

M. Schneider

The Great Hurricane of 1780 uprooted and debarked all the trees on Barbados, and demolished a stone fort and flung its bronze cannon about. Debarking has not been seen in any contemporary hurricane.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Hurricane_of_1780#Impact
On the old Fujita Tornado Intensity Scale, a debarked tree is a damage signature denoting F5 wind speeds above 260 mph; meaning the 1780 storm possessed gusts exceeding that threshold (or over 100mph stronger than the criteria for Category 5 status).
http://geography.about.com/od/physicalgeography/a/fujitascale.htm

David Larsen

I rode out Hurricane David in Northern Virginia in the late 1970’s. I remember watching from my 72 Chevy Impala and a large limb hit the front left panel and severly dented it while I was inside.

M. Schneider says: August 29, 2013 at 4:13 pm “Debarking has not been seen in any contemporary hurricane.”
Hurricane Hugo debarked the Francis Marion National Forest and my neighborhood.

clipe

When people get all excited about recent hurricanes, I can’t help but remember a few of the older ones. I went to school during Hazel in Eastern NC. About the time the eye passed they let the kids that lived within 3 blocks of the school WALK home. I remember high winds and the oak trees out front beating on the upstairs windows of our house. Main street in my home town had miles of 100-year-old oaks that were rolled down the street. We had a number of hurricanes in the 50’s and early 60’s. In 1999, Floyd flooded Eastern NC as far west as Rocky Mount and Tarboro, 100 miles inland. My hometown flooded in areas that I have never seen flooded. My sister’s cottage in Bath, NC, is 11′ above ground level (result of ’90’s hurricane rebuilds). The grounds are a couple of feet above the Pamlico River and the surge from Floyd ended up wetting the carpets on the cottage floor.
When I hear all this noise about extreme weather, all I have to do is remember a few I experienced and blow it off as sheer hype.

scarletmacaw

TAG says:
August 29, 2013 at 3:53 pm
AGW zealots often cherrypick to try to prove a point and as a result their credibility has suffered. This posting could be considered to be an example of this. Shouldn’t this be studiously avoided.

Theory: All odd numbers are prime.
Climate ‘Scientist’: 29 is prime.
WUWT: 9 isn’t prime.

Agesilaus

I recall a story circulating in Engineering school at UF when I was there back in the 1970’s. The City of Key West sent a delegation to the EPA regional office to discuss plans for a new wastewater treatment plan (IIRC). Their engineers got up and did a long technical discussion of the new plant design. They all noticed that the EPA rep seem uninterested. After several hours the presentation drew to a close and the head of the delegation asked:
“What do you think about the design?”
“Eh? Replied the EPA guy, “nice but we don’t need any of it?”
“What do you mean? What are we going to do with the wastewater?”
The EPA guy smirked and replied, “We’ll just ship it up north and treat it there on the mainland.”
The Key West people stared at him and finally one asked, “Ship it how?”
“Why on the train” replied the idiot from the EPA.
The delegation silently gathered their material together and walked out. As mentioned the rail line vanished in 1935.

Txomin

Natural catastrophes are reported in terms of commercial and political interests. Facts are simply at the service of these goals.

Jim Clarke

Bob Droege says:
August 29, 2013 at 3:20 pm
“Compares better to Rita and Wilma and Katrina and Mitch and Dean, but mentioning that fully half of the strongest known hurricanes in the Atlantic basin have occurred this century is going to go over like warm spit on cold pizza.”
Indeed, Bob, because you are comparing apples to oranges. Of the top 10 most intense hurricanes to hit the United States, none of them have happened in this century. We are currently in the longest drought of a major hurricane strike on the US in recorded history. Officially, Wilma was a category 3 storm when it made landfall back in 2005, but was not a category 3 based on surface measurements. Only modern radar detected a category 3 wind speed. Without that, the drought would be even more unprecedented. Indeed, the peak strengths of all the 21st Century storms you listed were detected by modern technology and not surface measurements. They would have come in much weaker if measured by the technologies of the past.
Inversely, we can assume that hurricanes of the past, before Doppler Radar, before satellite imagery and before WWII (aircraft recon), were always under-measured. There is a high probability that the peak strengths of historical hurricanes were never measured at all, unless they happened to peak right at landfall, which is unusual. Today, the peak is almost always captured, no matter where it occurs, giving the impression to the ignorant that storms are more powerful since the turn of the Century.
So indeed, implying that storms have been worse in the 21st century is scientifically inaccurate and akin to warm spit on cold pizza.

“Key Largo”
Great movie !!

Andrew Harding

“Key Largo” is one of the best movies of all time! Great actors, great plot, amazing special effects! A bit like AGW proponents, but theirs is not quite so realistic!!

clipe

http://www.aoml.noaa.gov/hrd/hurdat/
Where is that rascally preview button?

Kathy

Very interesting and informative. I think the media likes to play up hurricanes and their power. Having lived in Florida for 9 years, I even saw one station make a “film” about the devastating effects of a direct hit in downtown Tampa! It was ridiculous the amount of salivating that went on as they described the carnage!

DanDaly

Thanks. I enjoyed the post. I’ve ridden out many hurricanes while living in Florida since 1968. There were a few I remember as a child in Texas (Carla was one) that caused concern as far north as San Antonio. But we build in anticipation of them. They are not as much of a concern as people taxing our air conditioning and lights.

Robert Austin

TAG says:
August 29, 2013 at 3:53 pm

AGW zealots often cherrypick to try to prove a point and as a result their credibility has suffered. This posting could be considered to be an example of this. Shouldn’t this be studiously avoided.

I guess TAG is not familiar with Steven Goddard’s site. While an individual example of a past weather event being more severe than present weather events could be construed as being “cherry picking”, Steven produces a superabundance of historic nasty climate events that amount to a strong case that present weather is not historically exceptional. So perhaps TAG should studiously avoid such concern troll-ism in future.

wsbriggs

I hate to be a spoil sport, but we don’t know how many Cat 5 hurricanes have made landfall on the NA continent. We’ve only got 500 years of history here. Most of that time they were just storms, some larger and more severe than others. It’s only in the last 170 years that we’ve even started putting numbers to the devastation and wind velocities.
To say that the majority of the Cat 5 hurricanes have been in this and the last centuries is a bit over the top.

Colin Richardson

I’m laughing at some of the commentary. How many stories have we seen which rant on about Hurricane Sandy, claiming it was caused by climate-change? So, along comes Don Baucom and simply points out that a more intense hurricane–the most intense in recorded US history– happened almost 80 years ago, long before the appearance of these consant climate scare stories. THIS is called “cherry picking?” Give it up, folks. Hee, hee, hee!!
Coli

Austin

The Great Hurricane of 1780 was a monster. Stone buildings with three foot walls were taken down to their foundations.
Here is a detailed account of the strike on Barbados.
http://www.thebermudian.com/past-issues/143
The islands destroyed in 1780 today have almost 4 million people on them. Then there is Puerto Rico. A similar strike today would kill hundreds of thousands of people.
The 1935 Keys storm paralleled the Florida coast. Today such a storm would inundate the entire state.
The fact that NY/NJ has not built a serious sea defense like the Northern European nations is puzzling to my Dutch friends. Sooner or later this will come to haunt the NE.

Latitude

Even the old map got it wrong….
…it shows the storm crossing south of Marathon…about where the 7 mile bridge is
a good 50 miles south of Upper Matacumbe Key/Islamorada
The ’35 storm crossed where the Latitude 25 line crosses the Keys

wayne

“The Great Hurricane of 1780 uprooted and debarked all the trees on Barbados”
“Recent hurricanes have been very mild.”
Yep, bit warmer, especialy upper air, less temperature differentials overall, milder storms. I loved the warmup, welcomed it. The frigid upper air this last spring in OK was to me the blame of that large tornado. It was very cool, frigid upper air, upto the day before and it was the cold upper, not the normal warm at the surface, that spur such monsters. I was watching the radiosondes the days before that hit, bowed cold upper air. Hope the cold of the ’70s is not returning. One storm back then, 5 below zero, 50 mi/hr northeast wind, two days duration, literally ripped my large sailboat to pieces, ice a foot and a half thick grew on it. I’ll take warm any day, warm is better.

In the photo of the dereailed train, was the engine pushing the passenger cars? It’s definitely behind them.
/Mr Lynn

Latitude

Mr Lynn…no way to turn it around…it was to push the cars down…then pull them back faster
Donald, here’s a better map….
http://www.keyshistory.org/35-hurr-News-map.jpg

It’s very, very hard to re-create everything about the train: and consider that we don’t even know whether the photo was taken looking north, or looking south.

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.

So, it (the whole train) was almost certainly going south on the tracks, but it was an emergency run, and there are few roundtables available on these islands to turn the locomotive around. ( A steam engine this large needs a roundtable to get rotated, but it can run as easily “backwards as forwards” as long as the tender is situated where the coal can get shoveled into the grill. )
So, if I were the emergency dispatcher, I would not wait until the locomotive went north to Miami or such and could get turned around and “pull” the cars. “Just hook it and go!”
So, the locomotive could be backwards but pulling the train, or it could be frontwards and pushing the train of cars. Either is logical and possible.

William McClenney

Signal to noise folks. Thanks for reminding us of this Mr. Baucom.

Theo Goodwin

I am glad that Hurricane Camille got a mention. What it did to the Mississippi coast is beyond belief.

Steve from Rockwood

A great read! Thanks.

Steve from Rockwood

wsbriggs says:
August 29, 2013 at 6:33 pm
—————————————–
I’m laughing because we only have a 170 year record of hurricanes yet we have a near 50 year record of Arctic sea ice extent and seem to know it is at an historic low.

Bill Adams

Not weather-relevant, but worth mentioning if only as a memorial, the veterans camp wiped out in ’35 was one of the last remnants of the Bonus Army whose encampment outside Washington D.C. had been such a political embarassment for the Hoover administration. Despite the Bonus Army’s help electing him, FDR had subsequently found them a millstone around his own neck and had tucked them into this prison-farm type job–out of sight, but also in harm’s way. Ernest Hemingway, one of the first reporters on the scene after the hurricane, wrote a furious article called “Who Murdered the Vets?” that pulled no punches about the government’s responsibility.

markx

wsbriggs says: August 29, 2013 at 6:33 pm
I hate to be a spoil sport, but we don’t know how many Cat 5 hurricanes have made landfall on the NA continent. We’ve only got 500 years of history here.
Agreed. A very import and and glossed-over point – this publication on Australian cyclones highlights this very fact. Super cyclones that were believed to have occurred once every few thousand years are shown to have occurred every few hundred years.
They’ve been recording there for some 200 years – I guess the big one is about due.

….we determine the intensity of prehistoric tropical cyclones over the past 5,000 years from ridges of detrital coral and shell deposited above highest tide and terraces that have been eroded into coarse-grained alluvial fan deposits.
These features occur along 1,500 km of the Great Barrier Reef and also the Gulf of Carpentaria, Australia. We infer that the deposits were formed by storms with recurrence intervals of two to three centuries and we show that the cyclones responsible must have been of extreme intensity (central pressures less than 920 hPa).
Our estimate of the frequency of such ‘super-cyclones’ is an order of magnitude higher than that previously estimated, which was once every several millennia ….

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v413/n6855/pdf/413508a0.pdf
Nature 413, 508-512 (4 October 2001)
High frequency of ‘super-cyclones’ along the Great Barrier Reef over the past 5,000 years
Nott etal

markx

scarletmacaw says: August 29, 2013 at 4:54 pm
TAG says: August 29, 2013 at 3:53 pm
AGW zealots often cherrypick to try to prove a point and as a result their credibility has suffered. This posting could be considered to be an example of this. Shouldn’t this be studiously avoided.
Theory: All odd numbers are prime. Climate ‘Scientist’: 29 is prime. WUWT: 9 isn’t prime.

Perhaps missing the point, scarlet and TAG.
Alarmists inundate the media with comments on occurrences of storms, fires, floods as examples of ‘unprecedented’ happenings.
The only logical counter to such stories is to show examples disproving the ‘unusual’, ‘weird’, or ‘unprecedented’ tag.
Someone countering ‘cherry-picking’ arguments with examples that demonstrate the point can hardly be accused of cherry-picking.

Louis Hooffstetter

Doug Huffman says:
“M. Schneider says: August 29, 2013 at 4:13 pm “Debarking has not been seen in any contemporary hurricane.”
Hurricane Hugo debarked the Francis Marion National Forest and my neighborhood.”
I too survived Hurricane Hugo and remember literally every pine tree in the Francis Marion National Forest snapped off approximately 20 feet above ground. For several years thereafter, we locals called it “The Francis Marion National Brush Pile”. The trees were rocked back and forth so violently in the wind that they split parallel with the grain before finally snapping off. Efforts by the lumber and paper industries to recover the downed trees were fruitless. Longitudinal splits in the downed trees prevented them from being used for lumber, and the rapid onset of “blue stain fungus” ruined their use for paper. It was a horrible waste.

F. Ross

TAG says:
August 29, 2013 at 3:53 pm
AGW zealots often cherrypick to try to prove a point and as a result their credibility has suffered. This posting could be considered to be an example of this. Shouldn’t this be studiously avoided.

No, it shouldn’t be avoided. The post is about an important bit of history intended to give us all a better perspective on the current catastropic claims.

johanna

Thanks for this gripping story – which, being based in truth rather than models, is all the more compelling. The fact that the wonderful movie “Key Largo” was loosely based on it highlights the impact this massive event had on the collective psyche.
As others have mentioned, it is not the intensity of the storm (I use this term to bypass all the different names for these things) but when and where it hits that determines the effect on humans. The Galveston storm of 1900 was possibly the most destructive in modern US history, although it was less intense than some of the others being discussed here. It was apparently only a Category 4 storm, with winds at a measly 145mph. But, because of the geography and demography of where it hit, the results were catastrophic.
The whole issue of storms has been utterly distorted by climate alarmists. It has diverted discussion from sensible topics like probabilities and how to provide for them in building infrastructure, to promulgating superstitious nonsense.
It is also worth noting that many people who live in places that are prone to natural disasters do so with their eyes open. I recall watching a program about people affected by huge floods in Queensland a while back. A lot of people just said “oh, here we go again” while sweeping the mud out of their houses and businesses. Several remarked on what fun it is to go boating down the main street.
They are hardier than me. One of the reasons I live where I do is that we don’t get floods, big storms, major earthquakes etc here. As many sociologists have observed, the rich tend to live up on the hill, for pragmatic as well as aesthetic reasons.

Karl W. Braun

Reading about these accounts of historic storms reminds me of one of the times I visited the isle of Catanduanes, in the Philippines. My wife had two aunts residing there, who one day shared with me their photo albums. Among all the pictures was a snapshot made in the aftermath of a terrific storm which had struck in the fall of ’70. I saw what were once groves of luxuriant coconuts, only the stumps a foot high remained. The hills beyond, formerly covered in dense forest, had been completely stripped, while all the trees growing closer to the coast became just piles of what looked like driftwood. Of course, not much of the little town that was once there survived, besides the swaths of strewn debris; other than a single dwelling, alone in the chaos, that belonged to my father-in-law. It was in that very house where all the villagers took refuge during the passage of that typhoon, one that could, in my opinion, truly merit the title of superstorm.

hoyawildcat

“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.”
Exactly. It is analogous to confusing the Richter Scale (earthquake magnitude, measured in terms of released energy) with the Mercalli Scale (earthquake intensity, measured in terms of economic impact).

JamesS

Another great hurricane movie is 1937’s “The Hurricane,” directed by John Ford and starring Dorothy Lamour, Mary Astor, John Carradine, and Raymond Massey. It tells the story of a lovely, prosperous South Pacific island, whose favorite son is unjustly imprisoned for brawling. The eponymous storm arrives just as the young man has escaped and returned to his island, where he helps many survive the storm, which turns the beautiful island into nothing more than a sand spit with a ruined church foundation.
Fictional, yes, but the special effects of the storm laying waste to the island won an Academy Award, and the moment where the storm surge completely inundates the island is unforgettable.

Jon

“I hate to be a spoil sport, but we don’t know how many Cat 5 hurricanes have made landfall on the NA continent. We’ve only got 500 years of history here.”
In the light that there are no signs of any old city or civilization, from before 14th century, along the USA East coast or in the USA side of the Gulf could be for a reason?
Sooner or later they where blow washed away? Have you seen google earth satellite at all the houses/cabins that have build along Florida’s coast? This is an accident/tragedy that’s bound to happen sooner or later? Why have so much been invested there in such a high risk hurricane zone?