The Hurricane of 1926
In 1921 a newspaper ad inviting tourists and investors to Miami Beach read: "…practically no danger from summer storms." If the claim wasn't reasonable, it was at least understandable. The last major hurricane had hit Florida in 1910, "when the population of Miami Beach could be counted on one, maybe two hands."
By 1920, the population of Miami had swelled to nearly 30,000, a 440 percent increase over the previous decade. The explosion continued throughout the '20s. On September 15, 1926, the National Weather Bureau issued warnings of three large tropical storms building in the Caribbean. The warnings fell not on deaf, but uncomprehending ears.
The "Big Blow" was the second hurricane to hit South Florida that season. In July 1926 a small hurricane produced heavy rain and slight wind damage. A longtime resident schooled in hurricanes' potential danger considered July's storm good practice for inexperienced Miamians. "We have had a beautiful time with a hurricane apparently made to order for me," he said, "blowing with just enough energy to put the fear of the Lord into the scoffers, and very possibly make them see the light."
Instead, the minimal storm engendered complacency among residents. On September 17, Miamians reluctantly heeded the Weather Bureau's hurricane warnings. Some people erected makeshift barriers, but Miami Beach was largely left to fend for itself.
The city did not fare so well. The storm crashed into Miami Beach at about 2:00 a.m. on September 18. Florida author Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote: "Miami Beach was isolated in a sea of raving white water."
Finally the storm ceased. Miamians who had boarded up their windows and doors unboarded them and stepped outside to assess the damage. Misinterpreting the calm, they didn't realize they were stepping into the eye of the storm. Most casualties succumbed after the lull. During the hurricane's second half, winds reached a terrifying 128 miles per hour, and rain drowned people who didn't reach shelter in time.
Structural damage was stupefying. Utility poles hurtled through the air. Roofs were torn from buildings. Electricity and water were cut off. Even the beach seemed to shift; Collins Avenue was covered in sand, as were lobbies of prestigious oceanfront hotels.
At the time, Miami's hurricane was considered the country's greatest natural disaster since the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. Today the Category 4 storm ranks among 20th-century U.S. hurricanes as the 12th strongest and 12th deadliest. After adjustment for 1996 construction costs, the storm is the U.S.'s 20th most costly, with an estimated $1.5 billion in property damage.
Damage control for the Big Blow was almost as extensive as the damage itself. "Any attempt to whistle off the damage of the storm while closing both eyes to the declining real estate values was pathetic," one historian wrote. "But Miamians are pretty good whistlers." With land sales already down from the year before, Miami promoters scurried to quash devastating news reports. A makeshift radio station was erected to broadcast the news that "Miami was down but not 'wiped out,'" as national headlines had proclaimed.
Pithy statements could not change the numbers: 113 dead, drowned or crushed by debris (the total reached 243 by the time the storm struck Pensacola and Mobile); 854 hospitalized; 2,000 homes destroyed and 3,000 damaged. Estimates of residents made homeless ranged from 25,000 to 47,000.
If promoters were frustrated by this "bad publicity," Red Cross workers were equally frustrated by the promoters. In their efforts to salvage the waning real estate industry, promoters initially hindered the Red Cross' efforts to raise relief funds. Ultimately donations poured in. Publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst equipped a special train with doctors, nurses and water-treating units, which arrived once the mangled railroad tracks were repaired.
Those with a bent toward hellfire "interpreted the hurricane disaster as divine punishment for the extravagant prosperity Florida had enjoyed." While Miami Beach was able to rebuild structurally in a few months (though a smaller hurricane in October 1926 temporarily set back progress), financially it would take years. In 1927 tourism was down, and land buyers were defaulting on their payments with increased frequency. The resurgence in tourism and land sales that Miami Beach enjoyed in 1928 and '29 would be short-lived. Another disaster -- the Stock Market crash -- was on its way.