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Jeremy Kappell
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Labor Day 1935: Most Intense Hurricane to Ever Strike the US!

The 1935 Labor Day Hurricane was the strongest and most intense hurricane to make landfall in the United States and the Atlantic Basin in recorded history.

The second hurricane of the 1935 Atlantic Hurricane Season, the Labor Day Hurricane was the first of three Category 5 Hurricanes at landfall that the United States endured during the 20th Century (the other two being Hurricane Camille of 1969 and Hurricane Anderew of 1992.

After forming as a weak tropical storm east of the Bahamas on August 29, it slowly proceeded westward and became a hurricane on September 1.  As Labor Day approached, hurricane warnings went up over the Keys.

A train was dispatched from Miami to evacuate the Works Progress Administration (WPA) construction workers, consisting almost entirely of Bonus Army veterans and their families, from the ramshackle camps they were living in Windley Key and Lower Matecumbe Key. The train was almost entirely swept away before reaching the camps late on September 2. When it finally arrived in Upper Metecumbe Key only the engine survived the winds and wall of water that swept through the area.  The hurricane struck the Upper Keys on Labor Day, Monday, September 2. The storm continued northwest along the Florida west coast, weakening before its second landfall near Cedar Key on September 4.

Cars from a relief train near Islamorada, FL, are pushed off the track following the Labor Day 1935 hurricane that ravaged portions of South Florida and the Keys.

The compact and intense hurricane caused extreme damage in the upper Florida Keys, as a storm surge of approximately 18 to 20 feet (5.5-6 meters) swept over the low-lying islands. The hurricane's strong winds and the surge destroyed most of the buildings in the Islamadora area, and more than 200 World War I veterans housed in work camps were killed by the storm surge and flying debris. Portions of the Key West Expansion of the Florida East Coast Roadway were severely damaged or destroyed. The hurricane also caused additional damage in the Florida Panhadle, portions of Georgia and the Carolinas. The hurricane killed more than 400 people, nearly all in the Florida Keys.

Photograph of Veteran's Camp before the Labor Day Hurricane.

The storm was born as a small tropical disturbance East of Florida near the Bahamas in late August. The disturbance moved westward toward the Gulf Stream, and US weather forecasters became aware of a potential tropical storm. The tropical storm strengthened to a Category 1 Hurricane as it neared the southern tip of Andros Island in the Bahamas early on September 1.

As the hurricane passed over the warm Guld Stream late on September 1 it underwent rapid deepening. It intensified without pause for a day and a half while its track made a gentle turn to the northwest, toward Islamadora in the Upper Keys. The hurricane reached peak intensity on September 2, making landfall between 8:30 and 9:30 p.m. EST at Craig Key. 

Memorial to the victims of the 1935 Labor Day hurricane located in Islamadora, FL.

After striking the Keys the hurricane moved northward, weakening as it paralleled the west coast of Florida. It made a second landfall in northwest Florida near Cedar Key as a Category 2 hurricane on September 4. It quickly weakened to a tropical storm as it moved inland, passing over Georgia and the Carolinas before emerging into the Atlantic Ocean near Norfolk. The storm quickly re-intensified to hurricane status on September 6 as it reached winds of 90 mph (145 km/h). It continued northeast, slowly weakened, rapidly became extratropical south of Novia Scotia, and dissipated south of Greenland on September 10.

The Labor Day Hurricane was the only storm known to make landfall in the US and anywhere in the Atlantic Basin with a minimum central pressure below 900 millibar.  Only 2 other hurricanes have struck the United States with winds of Category 5 strength. It remains the third most intense Atlantic Hurricane on record, surpassed only by Hurricanes Gilbert (1988) and Wilma (2005). However, it was the most intense for a total of 53 years, from 1935 until Gilbert formed in 1988.

 

The maximum sustained wind speed at landfall is estimated to have been near 185 mph (260 km/h).  The recorded central pressurewas reported as 26.35 inHg (892 mb/Hpa). This was the record low pressure for a hurricane anywhere in the Western Hemisphere until surpassed by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 and Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

-Jeremy Kappell

Meteorologist, Speaker, Talk Show Host, Blogger and American Patriot

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