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History of Hurricanes in Florida

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Hurricanes are major natural disasters, and few states have had to deal with them as consistently as Florida. In this lesson, we'll look at some of Florida's worst hurricanes, and see what those meant for the state.

Hurricanes of Florida

The Bermuda Triangle. The pirates of the Caribbean. The West Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. All are full of famous dangers that have captured our imaginations. But there's one danger that stands out above the rest, one that has resulted in more loss of life than all the others combined. Hurricanes.

It sounds a bit less dramatic than pirates, but hurricanes are among the deadliest forces of nature. By definition, a hurricane is a tropical storm with winds of over 74 miles per hour. They are categorized by this wind speed, with the most severe, a Category 5, seeing winds greater than 155 mph.

So, they're pretty dangerous, and Florida has had its fair share. Why? Well, Florida sits at the intersection of winds and currents connecting the Atlantic and Caribbean. This made it an attractive place for Spanish explorers and English pirates, but also a perfect storm (pardon the pun) of ingredients needed to generate dangerously inclement weather, particularly in southern regions. Let's look at a few particularly famous ones.

Pre-Named Hurricanes (1919 - 1959)

Key West Hurricane of 1919

Let's start with the Hurricane of Key West in 1919. In that year, a massive storm swept along the southern coast of Florida, with winds up to 110 mph. Over 800 people were killed, with roughly 500 of those being at sea when the storm struck. Due to the inability to recover those bodies, we will never know exactly how many were killed in this event. This hurricane was also significant because the American government was undergoing some changes in this time, and the devastation of the storm demonstrated a lack of preparedness to deal with such catastrophes.

The Miami Hurricane of 1926

Almost a decade later, another massive hurricane struck southern Florida, this time centered over Miami. Between 300 and 800 people died, again it's difficult to know for sure how many, but sustained winds leveled entire towns around Fort Lauderdale and Miami. It was the most destructive storm the US had seen up to that point, and is still remembered as one of the most devastating hurricanes in US history.

The Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928

In 1928, a major hurricane passed over central Florida, and then unexpectedly turned north, heading straight up the unprepared inland portions of the state. The hurricane itself was bad, with winds up to 125 mph, but what was worse was the flooding. Massive rains overpowered the dikes around Lake Okeechobee and the lake drained into nearby farms, killing almost 2,000 people.

The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935

A few years later, in the middle of the Great Depression, the Florida Keys were again hit by another gigantic storm. 408 people died, but what is most remembered about this storm were the winds. With gusts up to 250 mph, this was the strongest hurricane in US history. People at the time reported that the skies filled with sand from the beaches, turning the air into essentially a giant piece of sandpaper that shredded anything in its path.

Train de-railed by the hurricane of 1935
1935 hurricane

Named Hurricanes (1960 - Present)

Hurricane Donna of 1960

The first of Florida's extreme hurricanes to be named (the National Weather Service formally began the practice in 1953) was Hurricane Donna. In 1960, 'Deadly Donna' swept over southern and eastern Florida, causing 13-foot waves along the coast. Donna is also remembered for holding the record of longest-sustained hurricane force winds.

Hurricane Cleo of 1964

When Hurricane Cleo hit southern Florida, it made such a mess that it actually prevented the Fort Lauderdale News from publishing its daily paper for the only time in the publication's history (it was founded in 1910). However, Cleo represented other dangers as well. Not only did this hurricane create numerous fires by knocking down power lines, it also destroyed a quarter of the state's grapefruit crop. This badly hurt the state economy and put many farmers out of work.

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