Key West is no stranger to hurricanes and tropical storms. The 1846 hurricane is often referred to as the “Havana Hurricane” due to its direct hit on Cuba and subsequent path through Key West. There were barometer readings, and damage reports from Cuba and Key West that equate to a strong Category 4 hurricane. Even as it passed over Cuba, Key West was remarkably, unaware of the ever strengthening storm at its doorstep.
Most hurricanes and tropical storms are either wind or water events. The 1846 hurricane was the worst of both.
Most of the island’s buildings were wooden structures on coral pilings that weren’t built to withstand high winds. Even stone structures were no match for the 150 mile per hour winds that pummeled the low lying spit of land and surrounding mangrove islands. Buildings disintegrated as siding, wooden beams, roof slates and rocks hurled through the air. Not surprisingly, the vast amount of flying debris injured many. Of the 600 buildings on the island before it struck, only six remained standing after the storm.
The storm surge that accompanied it flooded downtown streets up to seven or eight feet deep. Whole buildings were washed off their foundations and floated out to sea. Many residents were forced to swim to higher ground through flotsam-filled torrents of salt water rushing over the island at a rate of six miles per hour. The surge undermined the beach cemetery disinterring the dead and hurling the bodies into the trees, surrounding grounds, and into the Atlantic waters. It swept away the Sand Key lighthouse, graveyard, and the island itself.
Since it was one of the few deep water ports with proximity to the Florida Straits and the Caribbean, Key West had a large and active maritime community. Caught relatively unaware of the impending storm, many mariners were forced to ride out the storm aboard their ships. Onboard a vessel at sea is not the place to be during a powerful hurricane.
As the wind increased many of the sailboats were forced to cut down their masts to keep their vessels upright and reduce the chance of dragging anchor. Hundreds of vessels were blown helplessly into the Straits and over the reefs. They too were all subject to damage from wind-blown debris swirling in the water. Some ships grounded on sandy shoals found themselves stranded in two feet of water far from the water’s edge after the storm. An unknown number of sailors lost their lives and nearly all of the boats in the area were damaged beyond repair, dashed on the reefs, washed up on shore or sunk at sea.
Of a population of 1,500 there were 60 recorded deaths from the Havana Hurricane. Facing prolonged material and skilled labor shortages, Key West rebuilt and experienced a population increase of 300% in less than a decade. This quick rise from devastation is testament to the resiliency of Key West’s residents and the importance of the island’s deep port location.