The Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935

October 16, 2023 // Article by: Shawn McGarrity

Looking through history at the strongest tropical systems to impact the United States, one of the most infamous storms you will stumble upon occurred nearly ninety years ago during the Labor Day holiday. As such, it is aptly named the Great Labor Day Hurricane.

For years the Great Labor Day Hurricane held several records cementing it as the most powerful hurricane to develop in the North Atlantic. The hurricane was the strongest Atlantic hurricane to make landfall by 1-minute sustained winds (with 185 mph winds, only to be tied in 2019 by Dorian). It also boasted the strongest overall 1-minute sustained winds in the Atlantic Basin (again 185 mph, surpassed by Hurricane Allen in 1980) and the lowest barometric pressure (892 millibars, surpassed by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988). Despite "losing" its records, the Great Labor Day Hurricane is among only four Category 5 hurricanes recorded to strike the contiguous United States.

The Storm

Up until that point, the 1935 Atlantic hurricane season was rather quiet, with only a tropical storm in May and a Category 4 hurricane that largely missed land outside of Bermuda. By the end of August, a disturbance near the Turks Islands began to organize into the third tropical system of the season, developing into a tropical depression near the Bahamas on August 31st. From there the cyclone rapidly intensified, reaching hurricane intensity the following day.

Hurricane Three, as it was known (tropical cyclones weren’t given names until 1953), continued to rapidly intensify as it moved westward toward the Florida Keys. By the evening of September 2nd (Labor Day), the hurricane reached Category 5 intensity with sustained winds peaking at 185 mph. A weather station on Craig Key, Florida reported a barometric pressure of 892 mb, the lowest pressure ever recorded from an Atlantic hurricane to that point. The hurricane was the first recorded instance of an aircraft being used specifically to locate a hurricane, with an afternoon flight on the 2nd reporting the storm’s location mere hours before it made landfall. Two hours later, the hurricane made landfall on Long Key at the same intensity, making it the first Category 5 hurricane ever recorded to make landfall in the United States.

Surface map of the Great Labor Day Hurricane on September 4, 1935 by the Weather Bureau. (Image Courtesy of NOAA)

In the following two days, the storm weakened as it skirted along the Gulf coast of Florida, eventually making a second landfall as a Category 2 hurricane in Cedar Key on September 4th. Following its second landfall, the hurricane weakened to a tropical storm as it passed through Georgia and Carolinas. One final period of intensification occurred September 6th after the storm re-emerged over the Atlantic off the coast of Virginia. Later that day, the hurricane transitioned to an extratropical cyclone and pushed well into the northern Atlantic, eventually being absorbed by another extratropical cyclone near Greenland on September 10th.  

Destruction in the Florida Keys near the initial landfall. (Image Courtesy of Florida Keys Public Library

The Impacts

The Upper Keys, where the storm made landfall, saw the brunt of its destruction. An evacuation train near the village of Islamorada arrived too late to the area and was met with a powerful storm surge of 18 to 20 feet that washed most of its cars off the tracks. Infrastructure from Key Vaca to Tavernier was totally destroyed, including a portion of the Florida East Coast Railway. The most destructive winds were rather narrow, with strongest winds extending only 15 miles from the center.


Derailed relief train near Islamorada, Florida. (Image Courtesy of Florida Keys Public Library

Flood and wind damage was reported well into the Southeast as the storm pushed northeastward through the region. The storm produced heavy rainfall through Georgia and the Carolinas, with the former reporting over 5 inches of rain. Cotton agriculture was spoiled in southern Georgia and winds in South Carolina produced similar damage to local crops. 

By the time the storm reached the Mid-Atlantic, winds had weakened considerably, with flooding being the main impact. Rainfall in Maryland and Delaware exceeded 15 inches in spots (the highest in the area from a tropical cyclone), with Easton, Maryland reporting the highest rainfall total with 16.63 inches.

When all was said and done, the Great Labor Day Hurricane left at least 408 fatalities and roughly $100 million ($2.23 billion 2023) in damage.

The Lost Veterans of the Labor Day Storm

Controversy came to light in wake of the storm’s destruction. Prior to the storm’s arrival, several worker camps for World War I veterans were established in the Florida Keys. Veterans had been employed in the region to help construct various infrastructure projects in the area, including the Overseas Highway. During this time, the Great Depression was in full swing and unemployment, especially among veterans, was a thorn in the political atmosphere back in Washington.

By 1935, the worker program was seen in a bad light, with both The New York Times and Time Magazine printing sensational articles in August of that year about the poor state of workers hired by the program. On August 15th, two and a half weeks before the hurricane’s landfall, it was announced that the veterans work program was to be terminated and all camps closed.

Transfer of veterans back to the mainland was slow in the weeks leading up to the hurricane, and the looming storm posed further importance on the need to evacuate remaining men.  While the effort was enacted in the time leading up to the storm, many veterans were left to weather the hurricane. It is estimated that up to 259 veterans were among the dead, with the true number unknown.

In the days and weeks that followed, Harry L. Hopkins, director of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), asserted that the loss of life was not a result of negligence on part of the administration (which ran the worker program), rather than the failed evacuations were a result of insufficient warning from the Weather Bureau (predecessor to the National Weather Service).

Public opinion was poor in regard to the veteran camps. Author Ernest Hemingway, who participated in rescue efforts following the storm, wrote about the devastation in an article he titled “Who Killed the Vets?” in The New Masses magazine. An editorial in The Washington Post shared the opinion held by many that the camps in the Florida Keys were intended to keep Bonus Marchers (World War I veterans who protested for early cash redemption for their military service) away from Washington, D.C.


The study and forecasting of tropical cyclones have improved substantially in the decades since the Great Labor Day Hurricane. In that time, several storms have occurred that were more powerful and destructive, leading to great costs and loss of life. Public awareness has improved and lead times ahead of tropical cyclones have increased, allowing for more time for evacuations to take place. 

Strong, even record-breaking hurricanes will continue to pose threats each tropical season, but in light of innovation in the field and better communication with the general public, we can be better prepared for when these destructive events occur.