The Great Miami Hurricane
September 18, 1926
“Hurricanes are no more risky to life than venturing across a busy street,” (48) intoned Richard Gray after a minor storm clipped Florida’s coast in July 1926. The head of the U.S. Weather Service station in Miami was just expressing the zeitgeist of his times. Technology had made natural disasters like hurricanes a thing of the past, what was important were human inventions, things like trains, automobiles and electricity that were reshaping America. As a result he paid little attention when an incipient tropical storm was reported a thousand miles east of Barbados. It was September 11th 1926. (48a)
Hurricanes were the last thing on people’s minds in the 1920’s. The nation was in the fevered grip of prohibition, and nowhere was the jazz age hotter than in southern Florida.
Glenn Curtiss, the inventor of the Curtiss Aircraft Engine had sunk much of his considerable fortune into Hialeah, a 14,000 acre gangster paradise of illegal booze, illegal casinos, illegal jai alai and illegal race tracks. Henry Flagler, John D. Rockefeller’s right hand man at Standard Oil extended Florida’s East Coast Railway from St. Augustine, to Palm Beach, and on into Miami where he had donated land to Richard Gray’s U.S. Weather Service so it would extol Florida’s balmy weather to listeners huddled around their radios in the cold Northeast. Henry Ford was turning out new model T’s every ten seconds so newly wealthy workers could drive down the Dixie Highway on Florida’s Atlantic Ridge. Businessmen, socialites, entertainers and athletes took Flagler’s trains south to stay at his flagship hotels; the Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, the Royal Ponciana in Palm Beach and the Royal Palm in Miami. (48b)
Things were a little slower on the Gulf Coast. In 1923 a group of motorists who called themselves the “Tamiami Trail Blazers” mounted an off–road expedition through the Everglades from Fort Myers to Miami. They would have starved if their Seminole guides hadn’t provisioned them with freshly killed venison occasionally supplemented with airdrops of emergency rations. They finally emerged from the jungle, without their bogged down vehicles, but with proof that you could complete a highway through the Everglades from Tampa to Miami. The nation had followed the Trail Blazers progress through daily press releases and couldn’t wait to follow them on the Tamiami trail to be completed only a few years later. (49)
Prior to the Trail Blazers feat, Fort Myers had been a dusty old cattle town where cowboys herded the descendants of cattle released by Ponce de Leon onto special cattle boats bound for Cuba. Havana was their closest connection with civilization. For years, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison owned the only automobiles in the town. Henry Ford had had them shipped by boat to Fort Myers so the two friends could zoom up and down the well worn oyster shell trail between their beloved winter homes. (50)
On nearby Estero Island where conquistadors once careened their ships, the ex-rum runner Jack Dyle built a bridge so sports could drive their jalopies over the bridge from Fort Myers and onto the island’s hard-packed sandy beaches. There they could enjoy all night nude beach parties and bootleg booze at his beachside casino.
But most of all, real estate was booming. Salesmen traveled through the midwest on special trains extolling the Sunshine State as the nation’s new center for year-round agriculture. The soil was so productive you didn’t have to fertilize it. Never mind that most of the lots were still underwater and would have to be “reclaimed” from the Everglades. Still many settlers had already built up agricultural communities on the Atlantic ridge running from the Loxahatchee River, north of Palm Beach and onto Homestead, entranceway to the Florida Keys.
Speculators were so eager to get in on the boom that they literally threw checks at salesmen. In one auction they snapped up 400 acres of mangrove swamp for $33 million in less than thirty minutes. Businessmen could stroll down Flagler Street buying a lot from a stranger on one block and selling it for a $10,000 profit on the next. A veteran discovered that the 10 acres he had casually traded for his overcoat during the war was now worth over $10,000. (50a)
Hollywood captured the era in two of its more madcap films. In “Some Like it Hot” a cross dressing Jack Lemmon chases “Sugar”, an often inebriated chanteuse played by Marilyn Monroe as they hide out in one of Flagler’s swanky hotels to avoid being rubbed out by Al Capone’s hitmen. In Cocoanuts, Groucho Marx plays the role of a fast talking land shark, “Can you get Stucco? Boy can you ever get stucco!” In real life bathtub gin sometimes sold for $38,000 a quart!
On Lake Okeechobee, Florida crackers were growing citrus, sugar cane and vegetables behind an earthen levee built to reclaim the lake’s soft black muck. But by the summer of 1926, heavy rains had raised the lake to the edge of that dike…
Meanwhile, back in Miami, Richard Gray issued a storm warning for the Great 1926 Miami Hurricane only hours before it would blow into town. And blow into town it did, packing 140 mile per hour gusts and the highest sustained winds ever yet recorded. A fifteen foot storm surge swept through Coconut Grove uprooting homes and floating them down the street. There hadn’t been any severe hurricanes in recent memory so when the storm’s large eye passed over the city people rushed outside to celebrate. They had dodged another bullet. To his credit, Richard Gray threw open the doors of the weather station and yelled to people to get back inside.
“This is just a lull. The worst is yet to come.” (51)
Over a hundred people ignored his pleas and were swept away by the eastern eye wall of the storm that engulfed them half an hour later.
After damaging every building in downtown Miami the storm continued its march northwestward toward Lake Okeechobee. There, it blew a wall of water through the earthen dike into downtown Moore Haven and out across the flood plains. People were trapped in their beds as the lake surge burst through their windows and doors. One man grabbed his family and ran to higher ground, saving only his wife, three kids and a soggy ten dollar bill. In the end the Great Miami Hurricane killed 400 people and left 40,000 homeless. The manmade earthen levee had only concentrated nature’s fury.
In 1927 the Mississippi overflowed its levees killing 1,750 people and leaving 400,000 homeless.
In 1928, another 140 mile per hour hurricane flattened Puerto Rico as the island was celebrating San Felipe day. It churned on to destroy Palm Beach then barreled into Okeechobee. This time the San Felipe — Okeechobee Hurricane blew a 15 foot lake surge through a twenty one mile hole in the newly rebuilt levee drowning the farming communities of Miami Locks, South Bay, Chosen, Pahokee and Belle Glade. In scenes eerily premonitient of New Orleans, people cut through their roofs to escape the flood and hung on to floating fence poles, tree trunks and bloated cows. There they fought off the swarms of large angry water moccasins also desperate to crawl onto dry land.
The San Felipe — Okeechobee Hurricane killed 2,500 people, mostly black share croppers working in their landlords’ fields. Richard Gray had again predicted that South Florida would be spared, but it hadn’t really mattered, none of the share croppers owned radios anyway. The San Felipe–Okeechobee Hurricane was the second most deadly hurricane in American history drowning more people than Katrina in 2005.
Governor Martin counted 126 bodies along the six miles of road from Belle Grade to Pahokee. In another move that portended New Orleans, the Red Cross initially announced it would not rebuild the flood prone homes where people had drowned, but they reversed the decision because of national pressure. Many of those same homes were flooded only a few years later.
If the Great Miami Hurricane occurred today it would cause $90 billion in property damages, almost twice as much damage as caused by Hurricane Katrina. If the San Felipe — Okeechobee Hurricane occurred today it would cause millions more in damages and leave many more towns and neighborhoods drowned. Both areas have been developed far beyond their carrying capacity. (53)