The devastating 1935 hurricane that surprised the Florida Keys

It was Labor Day, Sept. 2, 1935, when the nation’s first-recorded Category 5 hurricane struck the Florida Keys. The winds: between 200 and 250 miles per hour. The storm surge: 15 feet high. Thirty miles of a railroad track connecting a portion of the archipelago was decimated. Hundreds died, including more than 200 World War I veterans working on an overseas highway linking the Keys.

When survivors and rescue workers surveyed the damage, they were horrified by what they saw: people buried or partially entombed in muck and mangroves, bodies dangling off trees. One family reportedly lost 50 members.

With Irma headed toward South Florida, officials in the Keys — a series of islands set off the southern coast — have ordered mandatory evacuations. Hotels are shutting down, the airport was expected to halt operations, and residents and tourists began their trek along the single highway back to the mainland.

But the fear in the Keys isn’t just a matter of geography: Back in the late summer of 1935, when the country’s weather forecasters didn’t have satellite technology, some residents and government officials in the Keys were taken by surprise by the viciousness of the hurricane. It has haunted residents ever since.

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