The Florida Keys are no stranger to hurricanes, or to the death and destruction that have followed their worst storms. But Hurricane Irma, set to surge through the island chain overnight — potentially as a fierce Category 4 or 5 storm — may rival them yet.
Irma, which saw its sustained winds weaken to 125 mph winds after skirting Cuba on Saturday, was expected to restrengthen and lash the Keys early Sunday morning. It easily shapes up to be the most damaging hurricane to hit the Keys since Georges in 1998. And if it comes in at a projected 140 mph somewhere near Key West, it could prove much worse — driving the Atlantic Ocean across sections of the island chain.
It was storm surge that was the big killer in the Keys’ worst catastrophe more than 80 years ago. The most intense hurricane to strike the United States, the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, tore first through Craig Key with estimated winds that exceeded 200 miles an hour. One estimate put the toll at 485 dead, including about 250 veterans who were caught in work camps building new highway bridges when the storm struck.
That storm was also the death knell for the Keys extension of the Florida East Coast Railway, which had been battered by hurricanes since it began operating in 1912. The railroad, which was then the only line of ground transportation to Key West, had weathered the 1926 Great Miami hurricane that killed 200 on the mainland as well as the storm in 1919 named for the Florida Keys that sank ships off the coast and killed more than 800. But the 1935 hurricane, with a surge that tore up tracks and overturned a train filled with evacuees, doomed the project financially.
A monument in Islamorada memorializes the victims of that hurricane. And author Les Standiford, director of the creative writing program at Florida International University, wrote a history of the tragedy in the 2003 book, “Last Train to Paradise.”
Hurricane-force winds have battered the islands nearly every decade since. A 1945 hurricane made landfall on Key Largo, damaged hundreds of homes and killed four people across the state. Hurricanes Easy in 1950 — the first year hurricanes started to be named — passed west of the Dry Tortugas in the Lower Keys before making landfall farther north with winds at 105 miles per hour.
Hurricane Donna in 1960, however, tore through the Keys with a distinctive fury, carving out a wide path of flooding and destruction, including several subdivisions in Marathon slammed near the eye’s path. Hurricane Betsy just five years later caused massive flooding throughout the Keys and left a jungle of debris that choked off the U.S. 1 route back to the mainland. Some areas were drowned in several feet of water, and five died across the state.
A handful of hurricanes swept past the Keys in the 1970s and 1980s, and Hurricane Andrew in 1992 also did some damage, hammering North Key Largo and knocking out power lines to the islands.
Hurricane Georges in 1998 tore through Cudjoe Key with a 10- to 12-foot storm surge that cut off water and electricity to the islands again, in some places for weeks, and flooded several hundred homes. During the unprecedented 2005 hurricane season, Hurricane Wilma prompted the most recent mandatory evacuation of the Keys before the storm swamped homes and businesses along the island chain.
But since Andrew, the Keys have not seen a storm with the kind of strength that Irma could unleash on the low-lying islands. The National Weather Service’s Key West station minced no words in one of its final warnings to get out: “Nowhere in the Florida Keys will be safe.”