Key West Hurricane 500 On Ships Lost at Sea, The United States has not suffered great loss of life from hurricanes when compared to the rest of the world. The typhoon of 1881 at Haifong, Indochina reportedly caused the death of 300,000. The Bay of Bengal cyclones of 1864 and 1876 resulted in the estimated loss of life of 150,000 from drowning and 130,000 from disease afterwards. The typhoon at Mille in the Marshall Islands reported a storm surge of 46 feet in height.
At the left is a graphic of 370 storms since 1886 without regard to strength but with winds greater than 39 miles an hour.
The word hurricane is believed to have been derived from the Spanish word “huracan” of the West Indies Arawak and Taino-speaking Indians and/or Mayan civilizations. Other possible derivatives are: Aracan, Hurranvucan, Jurakan, Urican and Furacan. The Spanish letter F in Aragon, Spain was gradually being replaced by letter H of Castile in the late 1400s.
Hurricanes troubled the early European ships from the beginning of the discovery of the New World. Columbus on his second voyage experienced the first recorded West Indies tropical disturbance while near the Isle of Pines (June 1495), Cuba that could have been a hurricane. Normally, beginning each June, they and dust are blown from Africa by the trade winds. Some go straight, but most make a northward recurve. Later in the season, some originate to our south and sweep northward. An early example, though not generally accepted as hurricane force, was the hurricane that wrecked Tristan De Luna’s fleet on October 19, 1559 while he was trying to establish a settlement at Ochuse, now Pensacola, Florida.
Hurricanes have always been a part of Keys history. Two of the better known early hurricanes were in 1622 and 1733. On September 6, 1622, at least six ships of the Spanish Terra Firma Fleet were wrecked near the Dry Tortugas, taking the lives of 550 people. Perhaps the most famous of these ships is the Atocha which Mel Fisher discovered in 1985. The second disaster was the New Spain Armada of which 19 of 21 ships wrecked in the Upper and Middle Keys on July 15, 1733. Three of the better known of these ships in our area are the San Pedro, San Jose and Infante.
Key West’s first recorded hurricane was in September, 1835; but the October 11, 1846 hurricane is generally considered its most intense. Reports of loss of life ranged from 25 to 58. The 58 may have included some lost at sea. The population of Key West was about 2,000 in 1846. Of the estimated 600 houses, all but eight were severely damaged or destroyed. Both the Key West and Sand Key lighthouses were completely destroyed, with no occupants surviving. There were about 20 people in the lighthouses.
The U.S. weather service began in 1870 as a function of the Army Signal Corps that relayed data twice a day to Washington by telegraph. Congress created the weather bureau in 1890 under the Department of Agriculture.
In the Spanish American War of 1898, President McKinley stated he was more afraid of hurricanes than of the Spanish Navy. Timeliness was lacking for effective hurricane tracking because of the lack of wireless communication. Warning stations were established throughout the West Indies with the center in Kingston, Jamaica.
From NOAA statistics from 1899 to 1992, there were 794 hurricanes and tropical storms in the Atlantic areas. Of these, 161 hurricanes and 141 tropical storms have made landfall or passed immediately offshore from Texas to Maine. Of the 161 hurricanes, 55 were in Florida and about half hit its southeastern part.
The infamous 1900 Galveston hurricane killed 6,000 people – the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history. There was no hurricane warning.
The October hurricanes of 1906, 1909, 1910 and the September of 1919 were quite severe for the Keys. The first three played havoc with the construction of the Overseas Railway. Henry Flagler’s crews learned much about preparation and evacuation from the 1906 hurricane and were far better prepared for the next two, losing only a few lives. The 1919 hurricane did severe damage to the Key West-Havana railroad docks and buildings in Key West with a high loss of life, though not on land. The steamer Valbanera was later found between Key West and the Dry Tortugas sunk with 488 aboard.
The 1926 hurricane devastated Miami/Ft. Lauderdale and caused 200 deaths. The warning came late at night when most everyone was asleep. Two years later the 1928 hurricane overflowed Lake Okeechobee, killing 1,836 people. The year 1933 had a record number of tropical storms – 21, nine of which were hurricanes. The reader can guess what was next. Yes, 1935. A category-5 hurricane tore through the Upper Keys and totally missing the Miami area, but inflicting total destruction of Upper and Lower Matecumbe Keys, and doomed the financially frail Overseas Railway.
In my opinion there is a danger using recent hurricane ‘numbers per year’ charts as statistics for predictions. Miami is a good example. Dade County where Miami is located was impacted by hurricanes 13 times from 1926 to 1966 – not a good statistic. However, over the next 25 years there were no hurricanes so the statistics then looked favorable, but 1992 there was Hurricane Andrew. Mother Nature is too huge to use say 100 years of its billion years to make any reliable statistical predictions. Every year a hurricane is equally likely to strike our coastline of southern Florida.
The strengths of hurricanes are broken down into five categories known as the Saffir/Simpson scale as follows:
- SAFFIR/SIMPSON SCALE -
Category Wind MPH Surge feet Example
1 74-95 4-5 Floyd in 1987
2 96-110 6-8 David in 1974
3 111-130 9-12 Betsy in 1965
4 131-155 13-18 Donna in 1960
5 156-up 19-up Labor Day 1935
I proffer a special disclaimer in using statistics of hurricane data. Many factors must be used for specific conclusions. However, if we use NOAA data to consider total U.S. damage costs alone (adjusted to 1996 dollars), the category-4 hurricane Andrew (1992) was the most destructive with $30 billion of damage. Second was category-4 Hugo (1989), with $8 billion damage. Third was a category-1 hurricane in the northeast U.S. named Agnes (1972), causing $7.5 billion damage. Fourth was category-3 Betsy (1965), with $7.4 billion damage. Fifth was category-5 Camille (1969), with $6 million damage. Fifteenth was our 1960 hurricane category-4 Donna with $2 billion damage. The 1935 hurricane is not even on the charts – there was not much property value in its path. The later hurricanes appear to cause fewer fatalities, but higher damage claims.
If we consider loss of life in the U.S., then the number one is the 1900 category-4 Galveston hurricane, which officially caused 8,000+ deaths. The Louisiana hurricane of 1893, which caused 2,000 official deaths, is number two. Number three is the category-4 1928 Lake Okeechobee hurricane, which killed 1,836, mostly by drowning. Number four was the 1893 South Carolina hurricane, which killed between 1,000 and 2,000. Number five was the New England category-3 hurricane of 1938 with 600 deaths. (The 1919 Key West/Texas hurricane also killed 600, plus an additional 500 on ships at sea.) The Upper Keys category-5 hurricane of 1935 ranks number eight with 408 deaths. Note that the top five hurricanes are not the same in the two evaluations. Damage dollar costs and loss of life depend on many factors, such as the population density, structure value, location, inflation and size of the affected area. Forty five million residents have moved to coastal areas in the past 25 years.
In 1943, the primary hurricane forecast office was moved from Jacksonville to Miami, where a joint civilian, Air Corps and Navy center was established under Grady Norton. Accuracy was greatly improved with the routine use of aircraft. Then in 1950 hurricanes were given names for easier reference. In 1955, the Miami office was officially designated the National Hurricane Center. The first operational weather satellite went into orbit in 1966.
An African storm on August 29, 1960 caused an airplane crash that claimed 63 lives near Dakar, Africa. Three days later this storm system was officially named “Donna.” By September 5, Donna had made landfall in the Leeward Islands in the Lesser Antilles. On September 7, a hurricane watch was declared on the Florida southeast coast and warning flags went up the next day from Key West to Key Largo. A category-4 hurricane was on its way.
It is written that 80 gathered in a Key Largo shelter and 150 in each of the two former WPA storm-refuge schools then operated as Red Cross shelters. Hurricane force winds struck the Keys on the evening of September 9 and lasted through the night. The eye of the hurricane was about 21 miles wide, stretching from Marathon to Lower Matecumbe, and crossed land at about 2:30 A.M. on September 10. Tides at Marathon were 8 to 9.5 feet and at Upper Matecumbe 9 to 13.5 feet.
The Tea Table Bridge between Upper and Lower Matecumbe Keys was washed out. The pipeline was broken in six places, electricity was out, and there was very limited telephone service. No sooner was the Tea Table pipeline repaired than an errant barge broke the pipeline at Vaca Cut. Sheriff John Spottswood laid the law down with the help of the Florida National Guard. An 8:30 P.M. curfew was imposed and the sale of hard liquor outlawed. Beer sales were permitted from noon till 6:00 P.M. (This is the Keys!) A travel pass system was established. Only two were reported dead in the Keys. The population of the entire Upper Keys was 3,126 in 1960, compared to 22,338 in the 1990 census.
Hurricane Betsy caused significant damage to the Upper Keys. Its course appeared to be taking it safely to the east of the Keys when it did a complete loop and headed west. It struck the Keys and Dade County on September 7 and 8, 1965 causing considerable damage. In June the next year, Hurricane Alma gave the Keys a scare, but passed safely to the west. Then in late September the same year (1966), Hurricane Inez cranked up in the Caribbean and appeared to be passing well to the east, but turned sharply westward and struck the length of the Keys.
Of the recent hurricanes to directly hit the Keys, “Floyd” on October 12, 1987 was perhaps the only one to contact all the Keys. Floyd veered its northward course to between the Yucatan and Cuba northeastward and followed highway U.S. 1 up the Keys. Many missed the initial warning issued at 6:00 P.M. the day before, but fortunately Floyd was about as minimal as a hurricane can be.
Dade County Hurricane Andrew scraped Key Largo at Ocean Reef when it came ashore Monday morning on August 24, 1992. The first storm with the name Andrew to cause death was in 1986, but it was a tropical storm mainly over Haiti and Jamaica. It rained for almost two weeks and 47 people died in the islands.