Throughout South Florida’s long and storied history, the region has evolved many times due to various circumstances, whether it be an influx of citizens from the north, an influx of immigrants from the south, booms and recessions in residential and commercial development, or–simply–the unique weather, of which Florida’s known for. The more pleasant connotations involve sun and fun, lazy beach days and humid nights prompting shorts, t-shirts, sandals and a lot of sunscreen. But it’s not always volleyballs and lapping waves in the Sunshine State. Occasionally, elements come together at just the right (or wrong) time, creating dangerous situation.
It’s with this in mind that we’ve compiled a list of the ten most extreme weather situations in South Florida:
Though South Florida residents might have a hard time believing it, Miami has had a couple of days in its history with below freezing temperatures. The record, however, took place on February 3, 1917, when the temperature dropped to 27 degrees. In fact, it got so cold that day that Florida’s crops were damaged. In fact during his initial visit to South Florida, renowned botanist David Fairchild–namesake of the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens–wrote a 300+ page research document titled “Southern Trip: January to April 1917 (Including effects of freeze, February 3, 1917) in which he observed the negative impact of the freezing temperatures on Florida’s ecosystem.
One of the worst natural disasters in Florida’s history, the Great Miami Hurricane was a category 4 cyclone that did so much damage it ended economic prosperity in the region, bringing Florida into the Great Depression earlier than many other cities in the country. With 373 casualties and $164.8 billion in damages (adjusted for inflation; $100 million in 1926 dollars), the Great Miami Hurricane was an initial glimpse for new Florida residents into the region’s penchant for bad weather.
On record as the second deadliest hurricane to ever hit the United States (behind the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 that killed almost 12,000 people) the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928 hit West Palm Beach on the morning of September 17 and immediately started wreaking havoc. Despite warnings to evacuate, the hurricane’s late arrival caused many to let their guards down. So when the dikes at the south end of Lake Okeechobee started overflowing, flooding quickly ensued, leading to the drowning of over 2,000 residents in the area. Ultimately, the Okeechobee Hurricane cost Florida the equivalent of $35.2 billion ($25 million in 1928 dollars). It also hit Guadeloupe, Martinique, Montserrat, Nevis, the Bahamas, and Puerto Rico, causing an additional 2,000 deaths and $75 million in damages ($50 million in Puerto Rico alone).
Key West in 1935 was still developing into the Key West we know today, and the Labor Day Hurricane did nothing to help progress in the area. Hitting the area on September 2 as a category 5 with 185 mph winds, the hurricane was (and still is) the strongest recorded hurricane to ever make landfall, immediately setting out to destroy years of construction. Sweeping away trains and bridges and buildings, the Labor Day Hurricane killed over 400 people and caused over $6 million in damage (unadjusted for inflation). Renowned author Ernest Hemingway’s Key West home was damaged as well, adding to the desolation of the area and prompting Hemingway to write an article criticizing the treatment of workers in the area and the relief effort.
Though many South Florida residents would like to disagree with this fact due to their own experiences with brutal Miami summer heat, the temperature in the area’s only reached triple digits once in recorded history: on July 21, 1942, when the mercury hit 100 °F. Though there don’t seem to be any records of the real life effect of this temperature, we imagine people made it a point to avoid standing outside on this day.
In mid-June of 1959, a tropical depression hit Tampa Bay, sending bad weather across the state that eventually spawned two tornados, one of which hit South Florida. Considered the worst tornado to hit Miami in over 30 years, the cyclone that touched down in Miami on June 17th lasted for about 20 minutes, traveling roughly 12 miles, injuring 77 people, and causing $2.5 million in damages (unadjusted for inflation).
Hurricane Andrew was a bit of an anomaly in its impact on Miami at the time. Though it was one of the strongest hurricanes to ever make landfall–third strongest all time, to be exact–the effect of the hurricane were amplified by a few factors. People in South Florida were initially told Andrew was going to pass the city by, heading north. Add to that the poor construction of homes in South Miami-Dade County, and when the hurricane hit the coast in the early morning hours of August 24th, it immediately set about destroying the city. In the end, Andrew killed 65 people and caused $26.5 billion in damage, making it the costliest hurricane at the time (since surpassed by Katrina, Sandy, and Ike).
Though the superstorm of 1993’s impact on Florida was significant, it makes the list more for its overall impact on the United States. Forming in mid-March of 1993, and–at its largest–stretching from Canada down to Central America, the cyclonic system caused everything from blizzards (snowfall was even recorded in North Florida) to torrential rainfall and eventual flooding. Overall the storm eventually caused over 300 fatalities and $8 billion in damages before it dissipated.
1998 was a unique (and deadly) year for Floridians. On February 2nd, an F-2 tornado touched down near Miami International Airport, damaging airplanes before heading north to Plantation, causing $175 million in damages on its path before lifting away 20 minutes later. A few weeks later, a series of several tornadoes struck Central Florida on the nights of February 22nd and 23rd, causing over $100 million in damages and killing 45 people. Months later, on November 4th, Hurricane Mitch would cause another tornado to touch down in Miami, injuring 20 and causing $25 million in damages. Needless to say, 1998 was not a good weather year in Florida.
Due to the El Niño storm system, the 2004 hurricane season would stand as the costliest hurricane season ever…until 2005. Overall, sixteen tropical systems formed in ‘04–six of them becoming major hurricanes–with eight of them making landfall and totaling over $57 billion in damages. However, just when people thought the worst was over, the 2005 hurricane season rolled around, producing 31 tropical systems, seven of them major hurricanes–and nearly $160 billion in damages–the majority of which occurred as a result of Hurricane Katrina (though Wilma was actually the strongest of the season).