Hurricanes That Shaped the Florida Keys
The following is an in-depth chronological history of tropical storms impacting the Florida Keys dating back to the 1500s, provided courtesy of the Key West History website.
On October 15, 1999, there was a close call with a hurricane called Irene in the Upper Florida Keys. Before reaching there, it started as a weaker storm over Cuba, but then it got stronger and became a hurricane while passing through the Florida Straits. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), most of the hurricane's strongest winds were on the eastern side, affecting the Middle and Upper Keys the most. After this happened, we, as historians, realized that it was the last hurricane in the Florida Keys during the whole millennium from 1000 to 1999. This experience inspired us to list all the hurricanes we know about in the Florida Keys from our records.
Hurricanes of the First Millennium
We don't have information about hurricanes in the first half of the millennium because the native people in Florida didn't have a way to write things down. Just think about how much we could have known if they had developed writing! But we must consider that the Spanish tried to change the beliefs, traditions, and writings of the native people in other parts of the New World. If there were any reports by the native people of Florida, they would have probably faced the same fate.
Havana was founded c. 1517, and from records of that city only 90 miles away, we can learn of potential hurricanes at the Keys; and, later, from records of the also-near-by Bahama Islands.
Hurricanes of the 1500s
1557 - Havana, Cuba, and Matanzas, 55 miles to the east, were struck by a hurricane. It is probable that it also hit the Florida Keys 90 miles northward.
1588 -Havana was struck by a storm "more destructive than that of 1557."
Hurricanes of the 1600s
1622 - On September 5th, a hurricane struck a Spanish treasure fleet from Havana, sinking or grounding eight ships at the Keys, including the Atocha, found by Mel Fisher 363 years later, in 1985. Over 500 people on the vessel perished.
1622 - On October 5th, another hurricane struck while survivors of 3 ships wrecked at the Dry Tortugas were still there; the sea almost covered the islets. In this second hurricane, the Atocha broke into two parts at her gunports; the deck floated several miles away from the hull, spilling cannon. Because divers kept checking the cannon locations, the effort to find the hull with its motherlode spanned 14 years.
1640 - A Dutch fleet commanded by Cornelius Jol (called by the Spanish "Peg Leg the Pirate") suffered a hurricane off Havana while waiting for the yearly treasure fleet; 4 ships of his fleet were wrecked by the storm on the Cuban shore.
1692 - On October 24th, a hurricane destroyed buildings in Havana and sank a St. Augustine supply ship near Key Biscayne; those aboard were rescued by a boat from Havana.
Hurricanes of the 1700s
1730 - A hurricane hit Havana and Matanzas in Cuba and destroyed buildings there.
1733 - On July 15th, a big storm hit a group of ships called a treasure fleet at the Florida Keys. The hurricane was so intense that 13 ships sank or got stuck in the area between Elliott Key and Key Vaca. After the storm, about a thousand people were stranded on their damaged ships or small islands until help from Havana arrived. This was one of the worst maritime disasters in North America. Still, we didn't know about it until 1938, when a diver named Art McKee started exploring underwater and looking through historical records. A fisherman named Reggie Roberts showed him a wrecked ship with cannons, and that's how they found out about the disaster.
1756 - In October, Havana was hit by a hurricane with heavy rains.
1759 - A strong storm from the northeast slowed the Florida currents' water flow in September. This caused the Dry Tortugas to disappear.
1768 - On October 15th, a hurricane struck Havana, and destroyed over 500 homes, wrecked 69 ships in the harbor, and caused 17 deaths.
1769 - A strong storm from the northeast pushed the water and a ship called the Ledbury onto the south end of Elliott Key. Bernard Romans, who made maps, might have seen the shipwreck while being salvaged and marked it as "Ledbury Key" on his map. The water from the storm covered the tallest trees on Key Largo and flooded Old Rhodes and Tavernier Keys with water about 3 feet deep.
1780 - A hurricane, which might have affected the Dry Tortugas, wrecked a Spanish fleet between there and the western end of Cuba.
1785 - Havana suffered heavy damage in a hurricane, and four ships sank in the harbor.
1791 - In June, a terrible storm hit Havana, causing much flooding. Around 3,000 people on the island died because of the floodwaters.
1794 - On August 25th, a dreadful hurricane struck Havana. The day after the storm, 100 bodies were found in the harbor. At the Florida Keys, two ships wrecked. The crew of a ship called the Vigilant had to stay on their water-filled ship for 48 hours without food or water until people rescued them from the Bahamas.
1796 - In early September, there was a severe storm called a gale along the coast of Florida. People from the Bahamas, likely in the Florida Keys, also reported experiencing the storm. The Bahamas also got hit by hurricanes during the 1800s.
Hurricanes of the 1800s
As more people started living in the southeastern United States, the reporting of hurricanes got better. This happened because there were more people, mail, and newspapers to share information. In 1822, Key West became inhabited, and by early 1829, it had a post office and a newspaper.
1831 - Two hurricanes hit Florida, and one of them on August 14th came from Cuba and went towards New Orleans, passing through the Tortugas.
1835 - The Key West Inquirer newspaper had only been around for a year when a hurricane hit. It swept through all the Keys and reached the mainland. The lighthouse on the lightship Florida at Carysfort got badly damaged but could be fixed.
1841 - A hurricane on October 18th and 19th caused the tide in Key West harbor to rise higher than anyone could remember. It wrecked ships along the Lower Keys.
1842 - The September 4 hurricane hit the Lower Keys and caused damage to the Sand Key lighthouse and many other navigation beacons.
1844 - On October 5, a storm called the "Cuban Hurricane" moved up the Keys and caused a lot of damage. Many buildings and wharves built by the Navy on Indian Key got washed away.
1846 - The Great Hurricane of 1846, which happened on October 11th and 12th, was estimated to be a category-5 hurricane by experts today. Almost all the houses in Key West, except for eight, were destroyed or damaged. The Sand Key and harbor lighthouses were destroyed, and the water rose to about 8 feet in the lower streets.
1851 - There isn't specific data available, but a hurricane severely damaged Key West, Tampa, and Pensacola.
1855 - On August 29th and 30th, a "heavy gale" caused the ship Rainbow to get filled with water near Long Key, and the Huntress ran aground near Indian Key.
1856 - A hurricane on August 27th and 28th passed west of the Keys, causing strong winds at Key Biscayne. The Activa was lost at the Dry Tortugas, and the Isaac Allenton was lost off Sugarloaf Key.
1870 - Key West experienced what some call "twin hurricanes" because they were only nine days apart. The first one arrived on October 8th, and high winds lasted for four days. The second hurricane with hurricane-force winds came nine days later. There wasn't much significant damage reported.
1878 - In September, a storm passed through the Upper Keys, affecting Key West slightly, and then continued through the Middle Keys and the center of Florida. We need more information about this hurricane.
1894 - On September 26th, a hurricane passed close to Key West and curved east to hit Sanibel Island. The " Brandon " boat capsized off the Upper Keys, and crew 17 floated ashore at Upper Matecumbe Key. They also found debris from the ship there. The Theora vessel was lost off Turtle Harbor, but the crew was saved. One person who died is buried in Tavernier, but their name is unknown.
Hurricanes of the 1900s
For the past 22 years, the Upper Keys haven't had many hurricanes causing destruction. In the 1900s, hurricanes were categorized as hurricanes, major hurricanes, great hurricanes, and extreme hurricanes, but how they were labeled is still being determined. As we get closer to modern times, we have more data, which can lead to more conflicting information.
In the early 1900s, when Henry Flagler was building the Key West Extension, three hurricanes made landfall. It's unusual to have two major hurricanes and one great hurricane in just seven years.
1906 - On October 17th, a major hurricane swept through the Upper Keys from the southwest. Two large houseboats securely anchored on Long Key's Gulf side were torn loose. One of them, with 150 people on board, ended up in the Atlantic Ocean, and 83 people survived. The other houseboat washed into the bay and returned to shore without any casualties. A ship called St. Lucie sank off Elliott Key, and 25 people died. Two houseboats with 45 men on Lower Matecumbe Key were carried out to sea. The number of lives lost in powerful hurricanes can vary, but an estimate of 160 lives lost is reasonable.
1909 - Another major hurricane hit all the Keys on October 11th, severely affecting Key West. The damages amounted to $1,000,000; newspapers said it was the worst hurricane in 39 years. Around 400 buildings collapsed or were swept away. The railroad suffered less damage than in 1906. The only large ship damaged was the tugboat Sybil, which sank and took 11 lives. A timekeeper in Marathon was also lost.
1910 - A great hurricane approached the Gulf of Mexico from the south. Initially, it seemed like it would safely pass far to the west of the Keys. However, on October 16th, it made a three-quarter loop and headed northeast toward Key West. It passed west of Key West into Florida Bay, but the stronger winds on the right side hit the Lower Keys. Sand Key, near Key West, reported winds of 125 mph. The documented damage was not as severe as in 1909.
Once again, the railroad was ready and had taken even better precautions. Only two lives were reported lost, but there was significant damage to construction facilities.
1919 - There was only one hurricane, and it struck Key West. It passed through the Florida Straits from the southeast on September 9th and 10th, causing severe damage to buildings and railroad docks in Key West. The estimated damage was $2,000,000, and the highest winds reached 110 mph. No deaths were reported on the island, but the ship Valbanera sank between Key West and the Dry Tortugas with 488 people on board, and everyone perished.
1926 - The first Overseas Highway was built. In September, a great hurricane struck Miami, killing 200 people and severely damaging the roadway and bridges in the Upper Keys. On October 21st, a second hurricane passed just east of the Upper Keys, causing more damage to the highway in Islamorada and Key Largo areas.
1929 - On September 28th, a great hurricane hit the Upper Keys with estimated winds of 150 mph. Storm surges of 6 to 9 feet were reported at Garden Cove. The railroad service was out for a week, and sections of the highway were washed out as far as Big Pine Key. The Coast Guard had to provide mail service for Key West.
1935 - The Great Labor Day Hurricane 1935 was an incredibly powerful storm. It had the lowest barometric pressure recorded over land in North America, which was very intense. Surprisingly, NOAA categorizes it as a Great hurricane rather than an Extreme one. On the other hand, hurricanes Carol and Edna in 1954, which were not as intense as the Labor Day Hurricane, are classified as Extreme hurricanes.
The Labor Day Hurricane had estimated winds exceeding 200 mph, creating storm surges up to 18 feet high. Tragically, over 400 residents and WW1 veterans working on building new highway bridges lost their lives. The storm destroyed about 40 miles of the railroad bed, and many structures from Long Key to Plantation Key were completely wiped away.
With the railroad destroyed, the Middle and Lower Keys were cut off from the rest of the area and could only be reached by sea or air. The surviving concrete bridges of the railroad were later made wider for vehicles, and in 1938, a continuous two-lane highway was opened to connect the Keys.
1945 - The September 15th Great Hurricane did severe damage to the Homestead-Miami area. Homestead reported gusts to 196 mph. Carysfort Lighthouse measured a 138 mph gust. The Richmond blimp base in south Dade lost 25 blimps. However, the Upper Keys reported minimal hurricane damage just as it did in Hurricane Andrew. Being on the left side of a hurricane was a definite advantage.
1947 - There were two hurricanes in Florida, but only one hit the Keys. It happened in the Dry Tortugas area on October 11th. Unfortunately, the device that measures wind speed wasn't working correctly, but observers estimated that the winds were about 150 mph. The hurricane also reached the mainland at Cape Sable and brought much rain. Tornadoes were not often reported during these earlier hurricanes, but two were confirmed in Miami.
1948 - Two hurricanes landed in Florida again, and both hit the Keys. The first one arrived at Key West on September 21st, with winds recorded at 122 mph at Boca Chica airport. There were gusts of up to 160 mph, and the water level rose about six feet because of the storm surge.
Two weeks later, on October 5th, a second hurricane came ashore at Key West and followed the highway along the Keys. This hurricane was similar to Hurricane Floyd in 1987, which didn't cause much damage. The winds were estimated to be around 100 mph but were measured at 90 mph in Miami.
1950 - This year is when hurricanes started to be officially named, but before that, they were described as Major, Great, or Extreme. Hurricane King came ashore above Fort Lauderdale, so only the uppermost Upper Keys experienced strong winds and a moderate storm surge. Hurricane Easy passed just west of the Dry Tortugas, but no significant damages were reported in the Keys.
1960 - There has been only one tropical storm in the Keys (in 1952) for the past ten years. But then Hurricane Donna arrived and compensated for the lack of low activity. Here is an excerpt of a poem from Hurricane Donna by W.R. "Plumb Bob" Wilson:
"Donna was a husky lass,
A lusty dame was she,
She kicked her heels and swirled her skirts,
And shrieked in fiendish glee...."
For certain, Donna was no lady as she wreaked havoc in the Middle and Upper Keys. She was already reported as a "Killer Hurricane" while passing northern Cuba. In the early morning hours of September 10, the Keys experienced the worst hurricane since 1935. Reliable sources reported sustained winds of 140 with gusts to 180 mph. Tavernier reported an anemometer "solid against the peg at 120 mph for 45 minutes." Lignum Vitae Key reported 155 mph and Sombrero Lighthouse 150 mph. Tidal surges were from 8 to 13.5 feet. The Tea Table Relief Channel highway bridge and waterline were destroyed, temporarily isolating the Keys farther to the south. Amazingly, only four lives were lost.
1964 - Hurricane Cleo came close to the Keys but missed, passing to the east. It was notable because it was the first time the Weather Bureau used cloud images from a space satellite to track a hurricane. Another hurricane named Isabell hit the Dry Tortugas area on October 14, with Key West experiencing wind gusts up to 76 mph.
1965 - Hurricane Betsy was a tricky storm. At first, it seemed like it would stay far away from the Keys, but then it changed its path and headed south toward the Bahamas. From there, it turned west towards the Keys. On September 8th, Tavernier claimed to be in the eye of the hurricane for a few hours. Betsy caused severe damage to the Middle and Lower Keys, with strong winds and tornadoes reported.
1966 - two hurricanes affected the Keys. Hurricane Alma passed just west of the Dry Tortugas in June, bringing winds of 125 mph. Hurricane Inez initially seemed like it would miss the Keys, but then it changed its mind and moved back toward them. It traveled from east to west along the Keys, causing minimal damage.
1972 - Hurricane Agnes passed west of the Keys, missing them considerably. However, a tornado still hit Big Coppitt Key, causing significant damage.
1987 - After a 21-year hurricane-free period, Hurricane Floyd arrived. It started as a tropical storm near western Cuba and became a minimal category one hurricane as it approached the Marquesas. It followed Highway US 1 through the Keys, causing some damage. A tornado also touched down in Key Largo during the storm.
1992 - Hurricane Andrew caused extensive and elusive damages, with estimates reaching billions of dollars. The Ocean Reef Club and the Anglers Club on North Key Largo were hit hardest. The power lines were destroyed, but clean drinking water was still available.
1998 - Hurricane Mitch and Hurricane Georges were disastrous for the hemisphere. Thousands of people died in Central America due to Hurricane Mitch, while Hurricane Georges came close to the Keys, with its eye center passing 12 miles south of Key West. It made landfall with maximum winds of 104 mph, causing storm surges and heavy rainfall.
1999 - Hurricane Irene reached hurricane status while crossing the Florida Straits in 1999. Its eye passed over Key West, making landfall near Cape Sable. Most of its strong winds were confined to the Lower and Middle Keys. The storm resulted in indirect deaths on the mainland and significant damage in Florida.
It's important to remember that hurricanes can be unpredictable, as the Weather Bureau states.