MIAMI (CBSMiami) – As extremely powerful Hurricane Irma marches toward South Florida, CBS4 Chief Meteorologist Craig Setzer has an important message. "For those in the Keys who say they've ridden them out, you may not ride this one out."
That's because Hurricane Irma reminds Setzer of the Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935; the most intense hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. The Labor Day Hurricane was the first of three Category 5 hurricanes to strike the United States at that intensity during the 20th century. The other two are 1969's Hurricane Camille and 1992's Hurricane Andrew.
Now, it appears, Irma will be the next Category 5 storm in history to hit the United States.
When The Labor Day hurricane barreled across the Upper Keys on Sept. 2, 1935, it was packing sustained winds of 185 mph, the same destructive power as an EF4 tornado.
"The Labor Day hurricane was small, like Hurricane Andrew," said Setzer.
The system produced a storm surge of 18 to 20 feet above sea level, knocking down trees and buildings on Matecumbe, Islamorada and other nearby Keys. It also destroyed Henry Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway, which connected Key West to the mainland.
It was the last time Henry Flagler's train made the trip from Miami to Key West.
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The train was sent to rescue more than 250 World War I veterans who had been building the Overseas Highway. But it arrived too late and was swept off its tracks.
"The storm surge washed the train right off the tracks and as it laid on its side, people in the train literally stood on the seats in the cars to try and keep their heads above water."
While nobody on the train died, the storm is responsible for more than 500 deaths.
Bodies of victims were found all the way across Florida Bay to Cape Sable.
Many of the victims drowned when they were swept by the waves into either the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic.
A year after the hurricane, the 17-foot-tall Florida Keys Memorial was built on Upper Matecumbe Key in memory of the storm victims.
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