Compare Hurricane Wilma to Hurricane Irma

“The impact of Wilma upon Key West was as if it’d been a direct hit from a Category I hurricane.”


It’s been decades — literally time out of mind –– since a major hurricane has broadsided Key West. That’s made us a bit complacent, not because we don’t understand the danger, but because, well, it can’t be that bad can it?

Yes. It. Can.

Just how bad could a Category 4 or 5 be if it hit our island square on? Think 40-foot waves crashing on Smathers and Fort Zach. Think storm surge at the 20-foot level. Will it happen? Gheesh, I don’t know and we still have days before we will have a clearer picture.

Some of us will have to shelter in place. There’s no options, no place to go and demands on-island that can’t be ignored. Some will, if they can afford it, head out. Either choice is a personal one, and we do what we gotta do.

But, make that choice minus the “can’t happen” bravado.

Here’s a handful of bullet points about Hurricane Wilma and the storm surge that drowned all but a few Old Town blocks. A lot of us remember Wilma and proudly say we made it through. But Hurricane Irma is no Wilma.

So, as you listen to the Irma forecasts and think “well, I survived Wilma, I can do this one, too” take note of the Wilma numbers — and you’ll see why Irma dwarfs anything Wilma poured on the Keys.

  • Wilma is now the fourth costliest U.S. hurricane behind Katrina, Sandy and Ike. (This was written before Harvey). Wilma took a hard right-hand turn from the Yucatan and made a beeline for south Florida. The hurricane weakened but re-intensified into a Category 3 hurricane at 120 mph before it made landfall near Cape Romano, Fla., on Oct. 24, 2005.
  • With an elevation that doesn’t rise higher than 5.5 meters (18 feet) above sea level, Key West is the most hurricane-damage-prone place in the United States. Despite this, the island-city had not suffered severe hurricane damage since 1919 until Hurricane Wilma struck on October 24, 2005.
  • Wilma brought with it a storm surge that flooded Key West with an average of one meter (3.3 feet) of seawater. Though the storm caused wide-spread flood damage, no one died when Wilma hit Key West.
  • In Key West, many of our buildings are just three feet above sea level.
  • On Oct. 24, 2005, “Wilma was a Category III hurricane, by one mile-per-hour.  However, the center of this tropical storm was some 75 miles away to the north.  As a result, the impact upon Key West was as if it’d been a direct hit from a Category I hurricane. 
  • “At 3:01 a.m., Flagler Avenue east of First Street, was flooded with 1-2 ft of salt water. Parking lots on the southeast side of Key West were flooded with 2-3 ft of salt water. Some homes on the south side of Stock Island, as well as the intersection at U.S. Highway 1 and Cross Street, were flooded with up to 4 ft of water. At 3:30 a.m. EDT, a report was received indicating that the NOAA Weather Radio transmitter on Sugarloaf Key had ceased operation (it was later discovered that the generator’s fuel tank had broken free and floated away).
  • “By 5:00 a.m. the surge seemed to have reached its crest and was beginning to recede. However, it wasn’t over.
  • “As storm surge flooding was receding on the Atlantic side, it was only beginning on the western or Gulf of Mexico side of the island; this was the surge from the trailing side of the storm.  This second surge caused flood waters to rise until about 10:00 a.m.  This second surge coincided with high-tide, causing flood waters to rise high and remain longer than had it occurred earlier on the Atlantic side at low-tide.
  • “The normal high-tide for that day was predicted to be two-feet above mean-sea-level; the surge pushed water levels to almost five feet.
  • “The Old Town or downtown section of the city experienced one flood or the other; whereas the low-lying sections in the middle of the city (First St., Bertha St., Flagler Ave.) were inundated by surges from both directions.”
Hurricane Wilma (pictured here to the right) resulted in the worst storm surge inundation throughout most of the Florida Keys since Hurricane Betsy on 8 September 1965.wilma-radar-impact


Be safe, my friends. Make smart choices, whether you stay or go.


Earth Observatory | NASA

City of Key West



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