Early forecasting system detailed ’35 hurricane

May 23, 2013 

A U.S. Weather Bureau map details the path of the 1953 hurricane and it’s destruction. (Photo courtesy of Jerry Wilkinson/Upper Keys Historical Preservation Society)

The roots of weather forecasting in the United States date back to 1849 and stem from an overture by the Smithsonian Institute when the instrumentation used to measure and record weather was provided to telegraph companies around the country.

By the end of the year, 150 volunteers were submitting weather observations. By 1860, 500 telegraph stations were sending weather reports to the Smithsonian. As a result, weather maps began to emerge.

In order to improve the gathering of data, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a resolution requiring the Secretary of War, “to provide for taking meteorological observations at the military stations in the interior of the continent and at other points in the States and Territories…. and for giving notice on the northern lakes and on the seacoast by magnetic telegraph and marine signals, of the approach and force of storms.”

The act required a new national weather service to be incorporated into the U.S. Army Signal Services’ Division of Telegraph and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce. Five years after the death of Grant, in 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed an act that transferred meteorological responsibilities to the newly formed United States Weather Bureau. Nearly a decade later, in 1898, President William McKinley ordered the Weather Bureau to establish a hurricane warning network in the West Indies.

Meteorological advances were being made. The cable exchange of weather warnings began with Europe. The government began using airplanes to conduct upper air atmosphere research. The SS New York transmitted the first wireless weather report from sea and, in 1928, the teletype replaced both telegraph and telephone as the primary source of communicating weather phenomenon.

It was 1935 when automated weather instruments, mounted on buoys, began collecting marine weather data. A hurricane warning service was established. Up until mid-1935, tropical hurricane forecasting was centralized at a single office in Washington. Reorganization occurred, however, resulting in four distinct tropical hurricane forecasting offices located in Boston, Jacksonville, New Orleans and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The following statistics and notes were recorded by Senior Meteorologist Grady Norton and Junior Meteorologist Gordon Dunn, operating out of the Jacksonville office in regards to what became the Great Labor Day Hurricane.

Friday, August 30, 1935, Key West reported 91 degrees with winds out of the southwest at 8 mph. Saturday, August 31, 3:30 p.m.: “A tropical disturbance is moving in the general direction of Key West at 11 mph. The storm’s center is located near Long Island Bahamas. Shifting winds between 39 and 46 mph are reported as being sustained near the center.” An advisory is given for the Bahamas and ships in the vicinity.

The 9:30 p.m. advisory reported that the tropical system was moving in a west northwestward direction. “… attended by strong shifting wind land squalls over a considerable area and probably gale force near center. Hoist northeast storm warnings (Tropical Storm) Fort Pierce to Miami.”

Sunday, 10 a.m., Key West reported 89 degrees with winds blowing out of the north at 12 mph. “Hoist storm warning south of Miami to Fort Myers. Tropical disturbance central short distance south of Andros Island moving westward. Shifting gales and winds of hurricane force. Storm will pass through Florida Straits late tonight or Monday. Caution advised vessels in path.”

At 9:30 p.m., Key West reported 84 degrees with 11 mph winds. “Tropical disturbance 260 miles east of Havana moving westward. Caution vessels Florida Straits for the next 36 hours.”

Monday, 3:30 am, Key West reported 82 degrees and winds out of the northeast at 11 mph. “Tropical disturbance still of small diameter but considerable intensity moving slowly westwards off the coast of north-central Cuba. Caution advised against high tides and gales Florida Keys and for ships in path.”

At 10 a.m., Key West reported 88 degrees with winds out of the north at 15 mph. “Tropical Depression about 200 miles due east of Havana moving slowly westward probably with hurricane force small area near center.”

At 1:30 p.m., it was 82 degrees in Key West. Winds were out of the north at 18 mph. “Hurricane warnings ordered for Key West. It will be attended by winds of hurricane force Florida Straits and Florida Keys south of Key Largo this afternoon and tonight.”

At 4:30 pm, Key West it was 83 degrees. Winds were out of the north at 21 mph. “Hurricane warnings for town of Everglades and Miami to West Palm Beach. Tropical Storm now apparently moving north westward toward Florida Keys and accompanied by hurricane winds over small area. High tides probable. Please notify people in exposed places to take adequate precautions.”

At 10 p.m. in Key West it was 81 degrees — winds out of the northwest at 34 mph. “Hurricane warnings north of Everglades to Punta Gorda. Tropical disturbance of full hurricane intensity but rather small diameter central 8 pm near Matecumbe Key moving northwestward accompanied by shifting gales and hurricane winds near center.”

Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.

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