It’s been more than 70 years since the last Category 5 hurricane struck the Florida Keys, and the collective memory of that event has all but faded among island residents.
When the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 battered the Upper Keys on September 2, 1935, it brought 200 mph wind gusts and a storm surge powerful enough to shove 120-ton steel train cars off the railroad track at Islamorada, Florida.
But the islands were dramatically different in those days. Perhaps 1,000 people lived on the islands outside Key West.
Now, about 80,000 people live in the Keys, and on any given day, another 40,000 or so tourists are on the islands. And with all those people crammed onto low-lying, narrow islands with only one highway out, emergency management officials worry about what might happen if a powerful hurricane crosses the Keys.
Some public officials in the Keys wanted to get a realistic idea of what a Category 5 hurricane – that is, one with winds exceeding 155 mph and a storm surge exceeding 18 feet – would do to the Keys. So in October 2004, they went to Grand Cayman Island only one month after monster Hurricane Ivan had battered the island with catastrophic winds and flooding.
Although no two hurricanes are exactly alike, Ivan had much in common with its 1935 ancestor when it roared past Grand Cayman on September 11 and 12, 2004. It raked the island with sustained winds exceeding 165 mph and gusts of perhaps 200 mph. That was nearly identical to the power thought to have been unleashed on the Keys on Labor Day Monday, 1935.
There were other factors that were important to the visiting Keys officials. Like the Keys, Grand Cayman is composed of coral outcroppings. And the construction is similar to the Keys, including steel-reinforced concrete buildings meant to withstand high winds.
Randy Mearns has lived in the Keys since 1968 and is a former fire chief and former mayor of Marathon. He made the trip to inspect damage from Ivan.
In March 2006, Mearns told me that what he saw had a dramatic effect on him.
“I’ve been here a long, long time and I’ve been through a number of storms,” Mearns said. “And I was saying, 'I’m going to stay for anything.'”
Now, Mearns has doubts about staying if a reincarnation of the Labor Day hurricane is headed his way. “What I learned is you better take whatever you want to have when this is over and go,” he said.
Mearns brought back some remarkable photos of Ivan’s damage on Grand Cayman. The shots are reminiscent of descriptions and photos of the damage in the Keys after the Labor Day hurricane of 1935.
This photo . . .
. . . of the ruined interior of a beachfront condo on Grand Cayman is a reminder of what Ernest Hemingway wrote in a letter to a friend after he saw Indian Key a few days after the 1935 hurricane: “The whole bottom of the sea blew over it.”
This photo . . .
. . . shows the top floor nearly sheared off a residence. It's a reminder of this photo . . .
. . . of the Hotel Matecumbe in Islamorada after the Labor Day hurricane.
Finally, this photo . . .
. . . shows what's left of a utility pole on Grand Cayman -- a concrete, steel-reinforced pole designed to stand up to vey high winds.
Jeffrey Pinkus, a Marathon city council member, said Mearns's photos "really proved how vulnerable (the Keys) are."
"If we have a Category 4 or 5 hurricane hit here directly, any part of the islands, life as we know it will change," Pinkus said. "I'm sure of it."