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Hurricanes: Science and Society
1935- Labor Day Hurricane

The strongest tropical cyclone of the 1935 Atlantic hurricane season, which would prove to be the third most intense Atlantic hurricane on record, had very modest beginnings. It formed from a slow-moving, weak disturbance east of the Bahamas on or around August 28, 1935. On 31 August, the U.S. Weather Bureau issued its first storm advisory . The report indicated that a tropical system of small size but noteworthy strength existed about 95 km (60 mi) east of Long Island, Bahamas. The depression encountered the Great Bahama Bank later that day where warm, shallow waters combined with the storm’s slow movement, allowed it to intensify quickly. Early on 1 September, the depression reached hurricane status and continued to strengthen as it made its way through the warm waters of the Gulf Stream.

Men standing near 20 or more stacked boxes, which happen to be coffins
The Labor Day Hurricane caused massive amounts of destruction and had a fairly high death toll. This image shows men standing near a large stack of coffins during the cleanup following the storm. Source: Florida State Archives

On September 2, 1935, Labor Day, the hurricane reached a peak intensity of 892 mb. The hurricane made landfall later that night as a Category 5 storm, crossing the Florida Keys between Key West and Miami, FL. As it made landfall, the hurricane delivered maximum sustained winds of approximately 298 km/h (185 mph). After passing the Keys, the hurricane slowly recurved northward and closely paralleled Florida’s west coast. The then weakened hurricane made a second landfall as a Category 2 storm near Cedar Key, FL on the afternoon of 4 September. The hurricane quickly weakened to a tropical storm as it moved inland across Georgia and the Carolinas on 5 September. By the morning of 6 September the center of storm passed again into the Atlantic near Norfolk, Virginia. It quickly regained hurricane strength, but then rapidly weakened as it became extratropical. Remnants of the storm continued northeast until it became non-tropical south of Greenland on 10 September.

Practically all losses from the hurricane were suffered in Florida, with most occurring in the Florida Keys. A swath of destruction 64 km (40 mi) wide occurred across the Keys, from just south of Key Largo to just north of Marathon. Most manmade structures were destroyed by the hurricane’s Category 5 winds, which gusted at times to over 322 km/h (200 mph), and the complete inundation of the islands by a 4.6-6 m (15-20 ft) storm surge. On Metacumbe Key, every single building and tree was destroyed. The tracks of the Florida East Coast Railroad, the main transportation route linking the Keys to mainland Florida, were shifted off their roadbed and completely destroyed. The tracks were never rebuilt, as the railway now terminates in Miami.
Fatalities throughout the Keys were significant. The mortality rate from the hurricane is estimated at 409 fatalities, of which, 244 were known dead and 165 were missing. The death toll from this storm could have been reduced if it wasn’t for forecasting errors produced at the Weather Bureau. Initial predictions indicated the storm would pass through the Florida Straight and into the Gulf of Mexico. When the Bureau discovered these predictions were incorrect, as the storm was moving much slower than forecasted, they modified their forecast to predict an impact on Cuba. The Weather Bureau realized the true path of the storm too late to allow sufficient amounts of time for evacuation, and Because of this late warning, many people did not leave the Keys. Among those who did not evacuate were World War I veterans working on a project to connect the railway to the Keys, 259 of whom perished. The inaccuracies in the forecast was likely due to the storm’s small size, with the lightest associated winds just 249 km (155 mi) from the center.

Fast Facts:

  • The 1935 Labor Day hurricane was the strongest storm at time of landfall in U.S. history and also the first Category 5 storm to strike the U.S. in the 20th century (followed by Hurricane Camille in 1969 and Hurricane Andrew in 1992).
  • At the time, this storm was the most intense hurricane to affect the United States with a lowest pressure recorded at 892 mb. It would hold this title until 1988 when it was surpassed by Hurricane Gilbert (888 mb) and later by Hurricane Wilma (2005, 882 mb).
  • The particularly small size of the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 is comparable to that of Hurricane Andrew, which inflicted catastrophic damage to Florida in 1992.
  • A woman was blown 64 km (40 mi) over open water from the Florida Key of Islamadora to Cape Sable on the Florida mainland. She survived long enough to crawl several hundred feet from the shore, where the Coast Guard later found her body holding that of her young son.
  • Standing just east of U.S. 1 at mile marker 82 in the village of Islamorada on Florida’s Upper Keys, is a simple monument made out of Keys limestone ("keystone"). It was unveiled in 1937 with more than 4,000 people attending. In front of the sculpture, a ceramic-tile mural of the Keys covers a stone crypt, which holds victims' ashes. The memorial was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places on March 16, 1995.


Emanuel, Kerry A. Divine Wind. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Pp. 136-144.

McDonald, W. F., 1935: The hurricane of August 31 to September 6, 1935. Monthly Weather Review. 63: 269-271.

Knowles, T.N. Category 5: The 1935 Labor Day Hurricane. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009.

1935 Labor Day Hurricane. Wikipedia. 2009. Web.

Scott, Phil. Hemingway’s Hurricane. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006.