The 1926 storm was described by the U.S. Weather Bureau in Miami as "probably the most destructive hurricane ever to strike the United States." It hit Fort Lauderdale, Dania, Hollywood, Hallandale and Miami. The death toll is estimated to be from 325 to perhaps as many as 800. No storm in previous history had done as much property damage.
Flooded West Flagler Street after the hurricane struck Miami on Sept. 17, 1926. The tide south of the Miami River rose nearly 12 feet.
"After the storm (of 1926), a soup kitchen was opened by the Ryan Building. FPL aided in every way they could to help the unfortunate. Two days after the storm, I did a little welfare work and saw unfortunates in dire need. They had no place to live or anything. I was lucky, I had a room at the "Y" on Northeast Third Avenue. At that time, they needed people to help in the outlying area ... the area was under military law and I worked there for two weeks. The devastation I saw there - buildings, corpses of people and cattle - will never leave my memory."
Adrian Banks, payroll clerk, Miami, 1926
Wreckage at a Miami boat yard depicts the devastation Miami residents faced after the infamous hurricane of 1926. As people began to pick up the pieces of their lives, signs appeared like the one pictured on this rooftop: "We are still here. Let's go!"
These are the remains of a devastated building in downtown Miami. Within several days, electric power had been restored to a few of the most important points downtown including Jackson Memorial Hospital and the McAlister Hotel, which was used as an emergency hospital.
"We are rebuilding in a few days what it originally took years to build. We have plenty of power and are concentrating our efforts in strengthening the internal service so that Miami and its neighboring cities will be ready to accommodate visitors."
- H.H. Hyman, FPL district manager, The Miami Herald, Oct. 2, 1926
The wrath of the storm left thousands of poles snapped like matchsticks, a gigantic tangle of wire, flooded power plants and 55,000 stunned South Florida customers in darkness. In spite of widespread and extensive power outages due to the 1926 hurricane, FPL heroes reacted quickly to the disaster.
IT HAD NOT been a good year for South Florida. A wild real-estate boom had collapsed. Millionaires at the end of 1925 had become poor folks by the middle of 1926. Solid citizens skipped monthly payments and tax bills - and lost their homes. Businesses failed.
The sun still shone, but its rays bounced off the bleaching skeletons of unfinished buildings. Where had the good times of the Roaring '20s gone?
Oh, well, thought battered Floridians, things couldn't get worse.
And then they did, on Sept. 18, 1926.
From out of the Caribbean a storm, described by the U.S. Weather Bureau in Miami as "probably the most destructive hurricane ever to strike the United States," hit Fort Lauderdale, Dania, Hollywood, Hallandale and, most viciously of all, Miami.
In the storm's eerie darkness, winds as high as 150 miles per hour, resulting in the deaths of between 325 and 650 people. More than 800 others were never accounted for. Property damage was the worst in U.S. history, at that time.
Striking some 25 years before hurricanes were named, the 1926 storm became known in South Florida simply as The Hurricane or The Big Blow, a ghoulish honor it held until Andrew struck on Aug. 24, 1992.
Born near the Cape Verde Islands off Africa on Sept. 6, 1926, the storm moved across the Atlantic and into the Caribbean. It was reported off St. Kitts on Sept. 14. Two days later it had moved into the Bahamas, and by Sept. 17 it had taken aim at South Florida.
However, there was no sense of alarm. Most of the 200,000 people living in the storm's projected path were new to Florida, lured here by the easy money of the land boom. Having never seen a hurricane, they had little knowledge of a storm's destructive force. It would cost many of them their lives.
AT 10 A.M. ON FRIDAY, SEPT. 17, the Weather Bureau in Washington issued an advisory about "a very severe storm" that would pass through Nassau early Friday evening in a direction that would push it onto the Florida coast. Newspapers ran the advisory, but readers failed to take it seriously.
Just before 6 p.m., Miami weatherman Richard Gray received orders from the Weather Bureau in Washington to issue hurricane warnings. But in 1926 there were few avenues for warning people. Only a handful of people owned radios to hear the warnings broadcast on South Florida's only radio station.
That evening the wind began to blow harder, the barometer kept falling, and the waters started rising. Gale-force winds lashed the shore.
At 2 a.m. the hurricane, 60 miles wide, struck the shore with tremendous force. In pitch darkness, Floridians cowered before the roar of the winds and the crash of collapsing buildings.
Artist Bob Lamme, 9 years old at the time, described how he felt that night in Miami: "The thrilling excitement I had expected to experience with the storm was not there. In its place was a chilling fear."
Two schoolteachers, Nell Hudlow and a friend, had arrived that day in Fort Lauderdale to start new jobs. When they checked into the Broward Hotel on Las Olas Boulevard, there was no mention of the hurricane.
In their corner room, fronting on the boulevard, the women turned in early, exhausted from their two-day train trip from Covington, Va.
"All of a sudden the wind came up and just took the sheets off our bed, clear across the room," Nell Hudlow recalled. "Then we heard all this glass breaking. It was between 11 and 12, and we got up and looked out. The sky was all lit up. We had never been in anything like that before, and we were scared to death. Then the hotel clerk came along and knocked on the door and I said, `Is this a bad storm?' and he said, `Oh, lady, it's terrible.'''
Skylights and windows shattered, and the water rose four feet deep in the lobby. Fearing the walls would cave in, a building inspector ordered all women and children to move to the Women's Club at Andrews Avenue and Southeast First Street.
D.C. Alexander, the first developer on Fort Lauderdale Beach, had just returned from the Georgia mountains to reopen the family's oceanfront home in his Las Olas-by-the-Sea subdivision.
Alexander's daughter, Betty Lou, who was 7 years old when the storm struck, recalled: "About midnight they got me up and dressed and we sat down in the living room. The wind was blowing and the water was coming up and I looked out the west windows and all I could see was the ocean's waves, rolling through the back yard. In my child's mind I just pictured our house bobbing out in the middle of the ocean.
"We stayed downstairs until the front door, which was solid oak, broke open and the doorknob flew out and made a dent in the plaster. ... We had double doors to the garage that were closed. We never saw the doors again. Our car, a Chrysler Imperial, was washed back up the incline and buried in the sand beside the house. It took two men three or four days to dig it out."
In Miami, 24-year-old Henry Reno, a police reporter for the Miami Herald, got his orders at 3 a.m. from an editor: "Henry, run over to the Weather Bureau and find out what the hell's going on."
It turned out to be an impossible assignment.
Taking his flashlight, Reno forced his way out into a terrifying world. Electric wires flashed around him. Rain stung his face. Objects flew past as he tried to walk. A plate-glass window exploded. When the wind knocked him to the pavement, Reno sought haven in the Seybold Arcade and stayed there until a lull in the storm at shortly after 6 a.m. He would survive the storm and later fathered a future United States Attorney General - Janet Reno.
Bob Mathews, who worked in the composing room of the Fort Lauderdale Daily News, lived with his family on the Isle of Venice, a finger island just off Las Olas Boulevard. At 2:30 he was awakened by his mother's screams. She had found the first floor of their home four feet deep in water.
"The ocean came up to the second story and the roof went off - all in one piece," Mathews recalled. "We lost everything we had. It's the scaredest I've ever been."
During the night winds reached velocities of 100 miles per hour. Then, about 6:30 a.m., the eye of the storm came ashore. Battered Floridians rejoiced at the brief lull the eye brought. Many ventured out, kissed the ground and gave thanks they had been spared. Others piled into cars and tried to drive back to the mainland over coastal causeways and bridges.
A horrified Richard Gray left his Miami Weather Bureau office on Flagler Street and cried out: "The storm's not over! We're in the lull! Get back to safety! The worst is yet to come!''
Thirty-five minutes after the eye's arrival, the winds returned, fiercer than ever, increasing to 140 m.p.h. in Fort Lauderdale. A storm surge of 12 feet in some cities rolled up rivers and canals.
In Miami, Foster Stearns looked out across the newly completed Venetian Causeway. He saw the sea wash over a car headed back to the mainland. In an instant, the vehicle and its occupants were gone.
BY NOON ON SATURDAY THE hurricane had moved on. The sun was shining, and the breeze off the ocean was gentle and balmy. But the fury of the storm was not yet spent.
Still a menace, the hurricane thundered across the Everglades northwest to Lake Okeechobee. Its winds whipped the waters of the lake against a flimsy muck dike. The levee gave way near the little town of Moore Haven on the southwest shore of the lake. Without warning a wall of water nearly 15 feet high poured into the town. Buildings were torn from their pilings.
"We saw the Methodist Church float by," recalled one survivor.
How many were drowned in the little town of 900 was not known, though the toll may have been as high as 300. Moore Haven remained under water for eight weeks.
The storm then moved into the Gulf of Mexico and struck at Pensacola at the far western tip of Florida and at Mobile, Alabama, before finally blowing out.
Of the approximately 100 people who died in Miami, most became victims when they ventured out when the eye passed. They were either drowned or struck by flying debris.
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Tidball declared martial law in his city of 12,000, where 15 people were known to have died, and possibly as many as 100. More than 3,500 buildings had sustained major damage.
Early reports had estimated the death toll in Hollywood at 60. It was later revised downward to 25. Nine died in Dania. Property damage was $159 million - $1.26 billion in today's dollars.
Terrible though it was, the destruction was not as disastrous as stories in northern newspapers indicated. The New York Times reported a thousand dead and "scores of towns razed or flooded." A Philadelphia newspaper ran a headline: "Southeastern Florida Wiped Out."
Hurricane Andrew, striking a heavily built-up area of South Florida with nearly 10 times the population of 1926, did far more property damage - in excess of $22 billion. But better forecasting, instant communications and tougher building codes brought one striking change: a death toll of 56.