Wilma (2005), Rita (2005), Irene (1999), Georges (1998), Inez (1966), Betsy (1965), Donna (1960), 1953, 1948, Labor Day (1935), 1919, 1910, 1909, 1906, 1894, 1849, 1846. These names and years all are associated with September and October hurricanes that brought fury and devastation to some portion of the Florida Keys or adjoining coastal waters. In some cases, many years have passed (perhaps even a generation) between significant hurricane impacts. Young men and women starting college or entering the workforce now, were just starting first grade when Hurricane Wilma brought a devastating storm surge to the Florida Keys in October 2005. In other cases, hurricanes have occurred in “clusters”. The hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005 provide such an example. In 1948, two category three hurricanes made landfall between Sugarloaf Key and Marathon within the span of only three weeks! Florida State University Professors, Thomas Jagger and James Elsner, examined historical hurricane landfalls in Florida, and stated in a 2012 research paper that a tendency exists for “hurricanes to arrive in groups along this part of the coastline”. Regardless of the level of seasonal hurricane activity or Florida landfall frequency, the two “busiest” hurricane months in the Florida Keys, from a historical frequency standpoint, are September and October.
Some of the most notorious storms in local history have occurred between Labor Day and Halloween. Even the famous Spanish Galleon, Nuestra Señora de Atocha was wrecked at sea, and sank west of Key West, during a severe hurricane on September 6, 1622. Its rich treasure would be discovered by Mel Fisher and his team over three and a half centuries later, in 1985. In 1846, the Great Havana Hurricane powered northward across western Cuba (losing little intensity), and devastated the young community of Key West. Interestingly, the community of Key West has not been affected by the core of a major hurricane since the Great Havana Hurricane in 1846! Even the hurricanes of 1909, 1910, and 1919, all significant and damaging hurricanes in their own right, could have been much worse for Key West had they hit “head on”. A “major” hurricane is one with sustained winds (not gusts) of 111 miles per hour or higher. The “core” of the hurricane is the relatively small, donut-shaped region surrounding the storm center, or “eye”. Other Florida Keys communities have been affected by major hurricane cores, including Key Largo in 1906, Lower Matecumbe Key in 1935, Boca Chica Key to Marathon in 1948, Marathon, Key Colony Beach, and Grassy Key in 1960, and Ocean Reef in 1992. The most intense hurricane to make landfall in the United States, and one of only three U.S. category five landfalls, the “Florida Keys Labor Day Hurricane”, devastated Lower Matecumbe Key on September 10, 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression.
Wind is not the only hurricane hazard, and neither is it the most deadly. Most people who die in hurricanes drown. Storm surge flooding carries the greatest potential threat to life and property in the Florida Keys. Other hazards include tornadoes and waterspouts, flooding rains, and powerful waves, surf, and currents.
As we head into the heart of hurricane season, visit hurricanes.gov or weather.gov/key for the very latest information concerning any credible hurricane threats to the Florida Keys or adjacent coastal waters. In addition, please get a plan, be hurricane prepared, and stay aware. In other words, be weather-ready, and stay safe!
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