On the evening of September 2, 1935, the most intense hurricane to strike the United States on record roared through the Florida Keys, taking hundreds of lives. It would’ve come ashore virtually unannounced except for the unprecedented flight of an American barnstormer in the Cuba Army Air Corps (CAEC). The storm was a record breaker and remained the yardstick by which other hurricanes were measured for decades to come.
1935 was the year the United States Weather Bureau (USWB) decided to reorganize its hurricane warning network. Responsibility for monitoring tropical oceanic weather for hurricanes and issuing warnings of their approach was decentralized from Washington DC to three other centers. San Juan, PR, Jacksonville, FL, and New Orleans, LA, now shared the burden with USWB headquarters, and a new dedicated telegraph line was put at their disposal to facilitate immediate communication.
The Jacksonville Hurricane Warning Center was manned by Grady Norton and Gordon Dunn. Late in August of 1935, they became aware of an area of disturbed weather to the east of the Bahamas. Forecasting responsibility for this storm fell to Dunn. As it approached Long Island in the Bahamas he was able to discern a closed circulation from wind direction reports received. By the time it passed over Andros Island on the afternoon of Sept. 1st, he estimated it was of hurricane strength. Because they were alerted by the Warning Center, ships began avoiding the Florida Straits and the storm. However, this deprived Dunn of much needed observations of the storm’s position and strength. He was forced to use persistence to forecast the hurricane, assuming it maintained the same direction and forward speed. This track ought to have taken it over the north coast of Cuba, near Cardenas, by the morning of September 2nd.
However, the Cuban weather service saw no evidence of the approaching storm by early on the 2nd, and no one was sure of where it was. Then a Pan Am flying boat pilot, on his daily Key West to Havana run, noticed a cloud mass to his east but much further north than where the hurricane should’ve been. He alerted the Cuban National Observatory (their version of NHC and NWS combined) upon landing. The Observatory requested CAEC send up a plane to confirm this. Capt. Leonard Povey, the Corps’ chief training pilot and an American barnstormer, volunteered. He soon found the hurricane, which he later described as an “inverted funnel of cloud”, much further north than expected and moving northwestward. Since his Curtis Hawk II aircraft was open cockpit, he did not attempt to penetrate the clouds, but he did circle the hurricane to ascertain its motion.
The National Observatory relayed the information to Jacksonville and by 4:30 pm they issued a special bulletin raising hurricane warnings for the Florida Keys. The Florida Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) alerted the Florida East Coast (FEC) Railway to send a relief train to evacuate its work camps in the Keys. Hundreds of World War I veterans were hired by FERA to build an overseas highway from Miami to Key West, and many had remained at the camps during the Labor Day holiday. Unfortunately, since it was a holiday it took the FEC precious hours to assemble a train and crew. By the time the train reached the Upper Keys, wind-blown debris was blocking the tracks, further delaying the train’s progress. The train reached Islamorada’s station just as the hurricane’s storm surge did. The in-rushing sea pushed all the cars off the track. Fortunately, everyone on the train survived, although it was a harrowing night struggling to keep their heads above water.
The veterans in the FERA camps and the local Keys residents in the area did not fare as well. The surge wiped the vegetation and man-made structures off the tiny islands in its path. Over 400 people drowned and many of their bodies were swept out into Florida Bay. The telegraph lines were down and the railroad tracks washed out in parts. For the few survivors there was no way to alert the outside world what a great tragedy had happened.
Local weather observer Ivar Olsen managed to rescue his barometer as the house in which he was riding out the storm fell apart around him. He climbed into a tree with the instrument and managed to take a reading of 892 mb during the eye passage. This became the record low pressure measured at a land station up to that point. From this reading it’s been estimated that the maximum sustained winds in the Labor Day hurricane were 185 mph (295 km/hr). The hurricane continued to sweep up near the west coast of Florida, but its power was greatly diminished by its second landfall in the panhandle region of the state. It moved across Georgia and the Carolinas as a tropical storm, then restrengthened to hurricane status over the Atlantic. It moved far out to sea and eventually was absorbed into a frontal zone. During its rampage, the Labor Day hurricane cause some US$6 million in damage and killed an estimated 600 people.
The fallout from the storm was considerable. Ernest Hemingway, who brought supplies to the disaster area on his boat Pilar and saw the devastation first-hand, lay the blame for the veteran’s fate on the Roosevelt Administration. The Administration quickly produced a finding exonerating FERA officials. Unsatisfied, Congress held hearings and compelled Administration officials to testify about the role of the USWB and other federal agencies. Capt. Povey came to Miami to persuade the US Government to fund CAEC to carry out further aerial reconnaissance of hurricanes near Cuba. The Weather Bureau later expanded this into a proposal to hire commercial aircraft to track hurricanes threatening the United States. However, the Roosevelt Administration, under pressure from the Texas Congressional delegation, instead decided to use Coast Guard cutters to reconnoiter storms in the Gulf of Mexico. It was a plan that was never fully implemented. The next time an aircraft deliberately flew into a hurricane, this time penetrating the eye of the storm, was Major Joe Duckworth’s flight in 1943.