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Florida Keys Hurricane Season Can Cause Deadly, Horrific Destruction

People often wonder what's worse, a Florida Keys hurricane or a tornado when it comes to Florida weather.

If you've ever been near or in the area affected by either of these severe forces of nature, you're sure to say there is no difference.

At least not when it comes to fear. The worry of personal property being damaged, and the greater fear of something happening to yourself or a loved one.

Both are equally destructive, however there is more advance warning with hurricanes.

This advance notice is crucial as it provides those in the affected area with valuable time so necessary steps can be taken to protect property, pets and lives.

Unfortunately many hurricanes also carry the force of tornadoes in them, and this increases the severity of the storm and the resulting damage.

Tornadoes vs Hurricanes

Tornadoes are considered the most devastating of the strong storms. This is due to several factors.

First, tornado watches are issued well in advance, but they're just watches. The idea is for you to keep informed, watch the skies, and listen to the radio or TV, so you're aware of impending storm danger.

However, when it comes down to the actual tornado warning, it's impossible for any substantial advance notice to be given. Sometimes, only minutes are left for you to quickly scramble and take cover before the Florida tornado strikes.

Tornadoes Can be Monster Storms

Florida Tornadoes Can Be Monster Storms
Photo Courtesy of Donald Lee Pardue, Flickr

Second, tornadoes pack the highest punch in terms of wind speed. They can reach velocities well over 300 mph and their paths can run a mile wide or greater. They can also stay on the ground for as long as hour or more, causing devastating damage.

Now compare this to a Florida Keys hurricane. You can have as many as 3 or 4 good solid days of advanced hurricane warning while the storm's path is tracked. The final landfall destination gets more refined as each day passes. This gives residents an opportunity to protect their property, and pack up and leave, or hunker down, if that's a reasonable alternative.

Hurricanes also don't carry the high wind speeds that tornadoes are capable of producing. In fact cyclones retain a downgraded status of tropical storm until sustained winds of 74 mph or more are reached. A Category 5 hurricane wind speed at 156+ mph is about half of what a strong tornado can attain.

Hurricane Andrew Destroyed Homestead and Miami

Category 5 Hurricane Andrew Destroyed Homestead And Miami
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Mark Foley Collection

However, a Category 5 hurricane obliterates everything in it's path. Out of all the hurricanes that have occurred, only three Category 5 storms have formed and made landfall in the United States.

Miami and Homestead were destroyed in 1994 by a Florida Keys hurricane named Andrew. Hurricane Camille destroyed Biloxi and much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast 36 years before Category 3 hurricane Katrina plowed through.

Of course the most famous of the Category 5 hurricanes is the Labor Day 1935 hurricane. This violent storm virtually destroyed Islamorada, most of the Upper Keys and parts of the Lower Florida Keys.

Hurricane Preparedness Checklist
And Hurricane Safety Tips

However, with all this 'good' news about hurricanes, they're still incredibly destructive because they're massive in size. It can take 12 hours or more, for a Florida Keys hurricane to pass through an area.

It's rare to have storms like Hurricane Charley that have small mass and are fast moving. Since they take so long to get through an area, the destruction is considerable, and if you're on the back side, or dirty side of a Florida Keys hurricane, you'll have even more damage.

New Orleans Flooding Was Massive After Cat 3 Katrina

Category 3 Katrina Caused Major Flooding In New Orleans, Photo Credit USCG Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Niemi

Take a look at the total picture. First, factor in the flooding issues due to the heavy rain associated with hurricanes. Then add in the possibility of strong storm surge flooding. Include the wind damage, and the fact that tornadoes form inside hurricanes. Now you can see why the formula for destruction is so complete.

Even a Category 1 Florida Keys hurricane can cause sufficient damage and certainly considerable inconvenience. Any time power goes out for even a day, everything comes to a stand still.

Even though buildings are usually not at great risk during a Category 1 hurricane, trees and other vegetation are. This is often the reason why there's so much damage. The downed trees land on structures and vehicles and knock down power lines.

Trees Snap and Split Like Twigs During A Hurricane

Trees Snap And Split Like Twigs During A Hurricane
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Dale M. McDonald Collection

Another aspect is that if there's major damage, and the power goes out for days or weeks, the infrastructure of the area is severely compromised.

When preparing your hurricane checklist there's a few things you need to remember. If a Florida Keys hurricane is coming your way and you plan on riding it out, you need to have enough cash on hand for at least a week. The reason is, if electricity fails, you can't get money out of the banks, or ATM's. You also won't be able to use your credit card because the credit card machines can't operate.

You also need to have a full tank of gas and if you can, fill a number of gas cans so you have surplus. This is because gas stations are unable to pump gas. Even the few that may have power and could pump, can't, as they're holding tanks are empty.

Stock up on Supplies Before Hurricanes

Essential Supplies Quickly Disappear Before A Hurricane Strikes
Photo Courtesy of Ben Brown, Flickr

You need to purchase extra food and water before a Florida Keys hurricane lands. If you're traveling with a pet, you need to ensure you have enough water and supplies for your pet too.

The reason is, most grocery stores will be without power and so they're unable to open. Even the few that are operating on a generator and are operational, will have minimal items for you to purchase.

If you need medical or pharmaceutical supplies, you should consider stocking up, if possible. You won't have access to these important products for a few days, perhaps weeks.

You should also have some form of emergency kit, and a first aid kit. You never know how long it will be before even minimal amenities are returned to normal.

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If you're unable to evacuate the area, and you've chosen to stay in your Florida Keys lodging facility, you'll need to ensure you've purchased several flashlights with extra batteries so you can see in the dark. It's also a good idea to buy an inexpensive battery operated radio with antennae so you can hear important updates regarding the Florida Keys hurricane.

Hurricane Evacuation Signs Direct Safe Ways Out

Hurricane Evacuation Signs Direct Safe Ways Out
Photo Courtesy of K-Stick, Flickr

Hurricane Wind Scale
And Storm Surge Strength

The Florida hurricane season officially begins June 1 and goes through to November 30th.

Nature however doesn't always follow the path of 'official' and occasionally a storm will develop early. One example is Tropical Storm Aleta which formed in mid-May 2012 and threatened to become a hurricane.

To help you understand the differences between hurricanes, here's a scale for wind speeds based upon the Saffir-Simpson wind scale.

Category 1 Hurricane
Sustained Wind Speeds: 74 - 95 mph
Storm Surge Average: 3 - 5 feet
Damage: Minimal

Category 2 Hurricane
Sustained Wind Speeds: 96 - 100 mph
Storm Surge Average: 6 - 8 feet
Damage: Moderate

Category 3 Hurricane
Sustained Wind Speeds: 111 - 130 mph
Storm Surge Average: 9 - 12 feet
Damage: Extensive

Category 4 Hurricane
Sustained Wind Speeds: 131 - 155 mph
Storm Surge Average: 13 - 18 feet
Damage: Extreme

Category 5 Hurricane
Sustained Wind Speeds: 156+ mph
Storm Surge Average: 18+ feet
Damage: Catastrophic

No question, a Florida Keys hurricane is a real threat. For half the year, residents living along the U.S. eastern seaboard and the Gulf coast deal with the possibility of one striking close to home.

Ironically, considering their location, the Florida Keys are usually spared a direct hit or even major damage from one of the massive hurricanes passing by.

What makes a Florida Keys hurricane so potentially dangerous to the area are these important facts.

Many of the islands comprising the Florida Keys are extremely narrow. Commercial and residential structures have been built close to the water's edge.

Unfortunately, hurricanes have incredibly strong, high storm surges which can easily exceed 10 feet or more. These surges can also travel inland many miles washing away everything in their path. This spells total destruction for buildings closest to the water. For structures inland, it means major water and wind damage.

Hwy 90 Between Biloxi and Ocean Springs was destroyed

Hwy 90 Between Biloxi And Ocean Springs, Mississippi
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

Consider Hurricane Katrina and the damage her surge caused the cities of Biloxi, Gulfport, Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Several of these cities were completely obliterated with not even one building left standing.

Biloxi Mississippi, with it's gracious antebellum homes lost much of it's rich history and heritage in one huge wave of Katrina's destructive force.

Hurricane Ike Severely Damaged Gilchrist Southeast of Houston, Texas

Hurricane Ike Severely Damaged Gilchrist Southeast Of Houston, Texas, Photo Credit Jocelyn Augustino

Picture the inland damage done to Galveston, Texas when Hurricane Ike struck. It's storm surge crested the tall seawall that had been created over a century earlier to prevent another inland disaster to this beautiful city.

My husband and I endured this massive storm in our home at the north end of Houston, Texas. The damage to businesses and homes in the area was horrific. Many homes were torn up by the wind, but the damage from heavy trees falling was particularly significant. The force crushed roofs, breaking the spine of the home.

The storm also produced 12 inches of rain which added to the damage of homes already broken by the trees. That evening, another non-related storm system passed through Houston, dropping an additional 12 inches of rain on the over saturated, soggy ground. This additional rain escalated the damage already done to homes and property.

Galveston After Ike

Galveston, Texas Was Severely Damaged After Hurricane Ike

Hurricane Evacuation Warnings

Another critical fact that adds to the danger of a Florida Keys hurricane making landfall, or coming near, is that there's only one point of egress.

Hwy US 1, the Overseas Highway, is the only road running the length of the Florida Keys. On any given day, traffic can be horrendous on this road. It's projected that it could take up to 24 hours to evacuate the islands if a Florida Keys hurricane was imminent.

That's a good case scenario, if all goes according to plan. If you have a disorderly or late evacuation, the traffic jams, accidents and other problems could become a secondary disaster of great consequence.

Houston Areas Hurricane Rita Evacuation was Disastrous

Houston Texas Evacuation Disaster During Hurricane Rita
Photo Credit Ed Edahl, FEMA

A horrific scenario we can take a lesson from, occurred in Texas before Hurricane Rita made landfall.

The hurricane evacuation that was underway was not properly planned or executed. They only had traffic flowing in the north bound lanes. The south bound lanes were empty. If both lanes had been used, traffic would have flowed easier. The end result was that thousands of people were stranded alongside the road for hours and hours.

If the storm had hit during this time, the danger to this traffic chain of humans would have been severe. As it was, with the traffic not moving, many ran out of gas. Everyone suffered from the effects of heat that a hot, humid Texas day can cause. The obvious lack of bathrooms posed a major problem, as did shortages of food and water.

Even though a particularly bad Florida Keys hurricane occurred Labor Day, 1935, the memory of that horrible day has unfortunately faded away. With new warning systems in place, residents and visitors feel safer.

In the beginning, when Florida Keys hurricane evacuation warnings were developed and issued, people would heed them and flee. However, when no hurricanes made landfall, or passing storms caused insignificant damage, residents began to feel evacuations were unnecessary. After all, evacuations take considerable time and effort, and there's always the loss of commerce to be considered.

Soon hurricane warnings lost importance. Eventually they were ignored altogether or treated as a nuisance to comply with - depending on the individual's situation or mood. For many, the real dangers of a Florida hurricane just seemed too distant and far removed from life in the Florida Keys to be taken seriously.

In recent years, any Florida Keys hurricane that could have posed a threat, ended up causing insignificant or no damage. This only served to increase the passive mental attitude amongst the residents.

Recent Devastating Hurricanes

The following recent hurricanes had only minimal impact on the Keys. If their paths had turned even slightly, the outcome would have been considerably different. The damage they caused when they made landfall elsewhere, serves as a sobering testament to the destructive nature of hurricanes.

Hurricane Charley Destroyed Port Charlotte And Punta Gorda, Florida

Hurricane Charley Ripped Apart
Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda, Florida

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Photo Credit David Bujak

In August, 2004 Hurricane Charley passed by the Florida Keys. This was an incredibly small, but powerful, fast moving Category 4 hurricane that made landfall around Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda, Florida. The extensive damage was confined to a relatively small area.

In September, 2004, Ivan, a potential Florida Keys hurricane passed by on it's way to Mobile, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle where it made landfall as a Category 3 hurricane.

This massive storm totally decimated large sections of Highway Interstate 10. It also destroyed a sweeping swath from Mobile Alabama east to Pensacola and then east along the Florida Panhandle.

Dennis, another potential Florida Keys hurricane glanced on by Key West. It made landfall in Florida's Panhandle July, 2005 as a Category 3 hurricane. It hit an area that was scrambling to recover from the massive damage caused by Hurricane Ivan's landing.

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina, made landfall as a Category 1 in Florida around Fort Lauderdale. My husband was on his way to West Palm Beach when he called to warn me that a hurricane was offshore and would land within the hour. No one had even known a hurricane was there - she seemed to have appeared out of thin air.

Katrina's impact on southern Florida and the Keys was basically limited to a wind event with tropical squall activity. Some areas of the Keys experienced minimal flooding. However, once Katrina got back out over the Gulf of Mexico's hot water, she picked up considerable strength before making her infamous landfall at New Orleans and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Hurricane Rita's Outer Bands Hit Key West

Hurricane Rita's Outer Bands Hit Key West
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Dale M. McDonald Collection

In September, 2005 another potential Florida Keys hurricane passed south of Key West FL. Rita caused wind damage along with localized flooding straight up to Key Largo.

She continued out into the open Gulf of Mexico where she began her travel north and west. When she hit landfall near the Louisiana - Texas border near Port Arthur, Texas, she narrowly missed New Orleans. This city was not even in the beginning stages of it's recovery attempt after being brutalized by Hurricane Katrina barely a month earlier.

In late October, 2005 Wilma proved to be an extremely unusual storm in many ways. First, she was identified as the strongest Category 5 hurricane on record before losing some strength. She also formed very late in the season, at a time when people are beginning to breath a deep sigh of relief. She also was an extremely slow moving storm. When she hit Cozumel, Mexico, she stalled over the area for almost 2 full days causing incredible damage.

Wilma Caused Flooding in Florida Keys

Wilma Caused Flooding In Key West And Throughout Florida Keys
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Dale M. McDonald Collection

After Cozumel, Wilma turned, and headed east, making landfall on Florida's west coast near Marco Island and Naples. She then moved across the peninsula and out to sea.

Wilma was the Florida Keys hurricane responsible for Fantasy Fest rescheduling it's 2005 festivities until the month of December. She also caused wind damage and flooding to the lower lying regions in Key West and other parts of the Keys.

My husband and I rode out Wilma in our home on Florida's east coast. This storm caused tremendous damage across the peninsula, with the dirty side of the storm being particularly destructive to home and commercial structures.

The Florida Keys have had their share of close brushes with hurricanes, but fortunately they have been primarily spared. Unfortunately in an area that has limited evacuation opportunities, when a hurricane of any significance strikes, the damage will be incredible.

Many of Biloxi's Beautiful Antebellum Homes Were Destroyed

Many Of Biloxi's Beautiful Antebellum Homes Were Destroyed
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

It only takes a sobering drive along Highway 90 from Pass Christian to Biloxi to realize just how dangerous hurricanes can be. This road once had pristine white beaches on the south side, and magnificent antebellum homes on the north side.

After Hurricane Katrina struck, barely a structure now stands. Instead of steps leading up to gracious mansions, there are steps leading to nowhere. You can drive for city blocks and see nothing but empty spaces where elegant, gracious homes once stood.

Occasionally you'll notice neat piles of rubble tucked away beneath vegetation proving that once, something wonderful had stood there. If you look carefully you'll see an ornate gatepost or part of fence that is now attached to nothing but memories.

Steps Lead to Nowhere in Biloxi, Mississippi After Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina Left Steps
Leading To Nowhere In Biloxi, Mississippi, Mark Wolfe, FEMA

Hurricanes are incredibly formidable forces with devastating results. After Wilma hit our home in Florida in late October, 2005, my husband and I drove to San Antonio, Texas.

As we drove through Florida's Panhandle and approached Pensacola from the east we commented on the area's rebuilding after Hurricane Ivan. Interstate 10 had been left in broken sections and had been impassable. As we drove the highway, it was already well under construction and traffic was moving reasonably well again.

Interstate 10 Was Ripped Apart by Hurricane Ivan

Interstate 10 Over Escambia Bay Was Ripped Apart By Hurricane Ivan

We then drove through Alabama, and into Mississippi. This is where the scenery took on a surreal appearance.

Massive pine trees, and power poles were down, or snapped like twigs. Tall metal billboards were bent and twisted into incomprehensible positions.

We were shocked to see people's undergarments hanging in trees. Refrigerators and an assortment of other contorted, smashed home appliances littered the ditches and underbrush. Broken pieces of furniture and personal belongings were scattered everywhere, including high up in the trees.

Animals, Fish, and Residential Debris Fills Trees, Underbrush and Ditches

Animals, Fish, Residential Debris Fills Trees, Underbrush And Ditches
State Arhives of Florida, Florida Memory, Dale M. McDonald

I know first hand that it takes only one Florida Keys hurricane of even minimal force to prove nature's awesome power. It takes only one storm surge to create tremendous damage.

The Florida Keys are a chain of narrow islands, completely surrounded by water, with only one escape route. These facts mean it's critical, no matter how inconvenient, for everyone to heed hurricane evacuation warnings. The alternative to inconvenience can be a price higher than one is willing to pay.

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Local Weather Zip Codes

Key Largo - 33037
Marathon - 33050
Key West - 33040