ISLAMORADA -- Alma Dalton, a survivor of the harrowing Labor Day hurricane that struck Islamorada in 1935, says she's never been able to imagine a storm any worse than that one.
"I had always thought it was the strongest," Dalton, 90, said from her Upper Matecumbe Key home last week.
It turns out that Dalton was right -- at least when it comes to Category 5 hurricanes striking the United States. Early this month, the National Hurricane Center elevated that Sept. 2, 1935, storm, with its winds at landfall of 185 mph, from second strongest on the U.S. list to first.
The change came after the NHC's Hurricane Database Re-analysis Team took a closer look at the former no. 1, Hurricane Camille, which made landfall near New Orleans on Aug. 17, 1969, and determined that its top sustained winds were 175 mph instead of the previous estimate of 190 mph.
"It's a minor change, I think, overall, but it does kind of reclassify the historic record somewhat," said NHC Science and Operations Officer Chris Landsea, who is heading up the re-analysis project.
Over the past 10 years, his team has evaluated approximately 1,000 hurricanes dating back to 1851, he said. Scientists hope that by learning more about the storms they'll be able to improve forecasting.
The team downgraded the Camille winds, Landsea said, after more closely studying barometric pressure readings at landfall. Camille's pressure of 900 millibars at landfall led to the estimate of 175 mph sustained winds.
Two years ago, Landsea said, the NHC conducted a similar analysis of the Labor Day hurricane. By calibrating the storm's barometric reading of 982 millibars with its tiny size -- maximum force winds extended just 5 miles from the eye -- his re-analysis team revised the wind strength estimate up to 185 mph from the previous 160 mph.
Like Dalton, Upper Keys historian Jerry Wilkinson said he's not surprised that the Labor Day hurricane is now regarded as this country's strongest on record.
"It completely destroyed Islamorada," he said.
The hurricane's storm surge of 18 to 20 feet topped over the whole of Upper Matecumbe Key, where most of the damage was wrought. The storm killed at least 408 people at a time when tiny Islamorada had a permanent population of less than 700.
Making up more than half the dead were World War I veterans who were in the area temporarily on a public works project.
The storm leveled all but one home on Upper Matecumbe Key, Wilkinson said. It also left just one business standing.
Camille carried a storm surge of 24 feet and killed 259 people when it landed in 1969.
The deadliest hurricane in American history by far was the Galveston, Texas, storm of 1900, which killed an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 people.