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1935 Keys Hurricane Upgraded To Strongest On Record

April 19, 2014

By The South Florida Sun Sentinel

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The Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, which sand-blasted the clothing off people and killed 408 victims in the Keys, has just blown away a longtime storm record.

A National Hurricane Center reanalysis shows it was more powerful than Hurricane Camille, which for 45 years was listed as the mightiest storm on record to slam the continental United States. It roared into the Mississippi coast in August 1969, killing 256 people, with 113 of those in flash-flooding. There was a storm surge of more than 24 feet along some parts of the shoreline.

After restudying data from ships, weather stations, coastal radars, hurricane hunter aircraft and satellite imagery, experts determined Camille`s top winds weren`t 190 mph, as originally recorded, but rather 175 mph.

The 1935 system had sustained winds of 185 mph as it barreled across the low-lying Upper Keys with a storm surge of 18 to 20 feet on Sept. 2, 1935.

"Some victims that did not drown were impaled by flying debris," said Jim Lushine, a tropical expert and weather historian. "Nearly every tree and building around Islamorada was blown or washed away, and several bridges were washed out."

The Labor Day hurricane`s winds were as powerful as those in an EF4 tornado, "nearly the worst case," said Chris Landsea, the hurricane center`s science and operations officer. "Certainly if there were more people living or visiting the Keys, like now, and they didn`t evacuate, then the number of fatalities would have been much higher."

Only three Category 5 hurricanes have struck the continental United States since recordkeeping began, including Camille, the 1935 storm and Andrew, which struck Miami-Dade County in August 1992 with top winds of 165 mph.

There have been stronger hurricanes but they reached their peak before striking the U.S. coastline, Landsea said.

For instance, Hurricane Wilma was the most intense Atlantic-basin system on record when it was in the Caribbean with sustained winds of 185 mph, five days before it hit South Florida as a Category 2 in October 2005. While it had the same top winds, Wilma was considered stronger than the 1935 hurricane because its central barometric pressure - 882 mb - was lower.

Landsea and a team of graduate students from the University of Miami are in the process of reanalyzing the entire hurricane database, dating back to when tropical records started in 1851, to make it as accurate as possible.

In addition to being walloped by two of the three Category 5 systems, southeast Florida has been struck by five Category 4 systems with winds between 130 and 156 mph -- more than any other region in the United States.

Another Category 5 system, the San Felipe Hurricane, struck Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, with top winds of 160 mph in September 1928. It proceeded to strike near West Palm Beach with winds of 150 mph, killing at least 2,500 people, the deadliest storm in Florida history.

It would later become known as the Lake Okeechobee Hurricane, since most of its victims were drowned in flooding around the lake.

Landsea said the list of most powerful hurricanes might be missing some that went undetected prior to the modern satellite era.

"We could not measure extreme hurricanes over the open ocean well before the 1970s," he said.

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(c)2014 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

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