Hurricane Center in Key West Built to Stand Its Ground

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
June 5, 2006

National Weather Service (NWS) forecasters in the island city of Key West, Florida, wondered for years whether their office would stand up to a bad hurricane.

Now, as experts call for a "very active" 2006 hurricane season, NWS staff can rest assured that their workplace is built to withstand the worst storms the Atlantic Ocean can throw at them.

Last fall the entire team moved into a new ultra-modern office building at the edge of Key West's picturesque historic seaport district.

The outer part of the facility was designed to hold up against winds of 165 miles (265 kilometers) an hour.

And if the fiercest of hurricanes manages to penetrate the structure's exterior walls, the staff can retreat to an interior bunker that will protect them from winds of up to 255 miles (410 kilometers) an hour.

The ground floor of the building is 14 feet (4.3 meters) above sea level—high enough to be above most hurricanes' storm surges.

"The staff can carry out their mission without worrying about personal safety," said Jon Rizzo, an NWS meteorologist based in Key West.

Lives at Risk

The island of Key West sits at the southern end of the Florida Keys (explore an interactive Keys map).

This island chain extends about 150 miles (242 kilometers) into the Atlantic Ocean and forms part of the boundary between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico (see a Florida map).

The last time Key West took a direct hit from a very powerful hurricane was September 1919, when a storm with winds exceeding 130 miles (209 kilometers) an hour made landfall there.

But dozens of hurricanes have plowed past the island in the decades since then, and the most powerful hurricane to strike the U.S. made landfall in the Keys in 1935 about 85 miles (137 kilometers) northeast of Key West.

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