The devastating 1926 hurricane flung boats across the yet unfinished Biscayne Boulevard. — photo from "Miami: Then and Now," by Arva Moore Parks and Carolyn Klepser
If today’s 30 percent chance of rain is putting a crimp in your plans for a beach-volleyball round robin, realize that 84 years ago to the day the deadliest hurricane in Miami history, a category 4 storm known as the Big Blow, whirled through Miami Beach like God’s own dreidel of wrath.
Following a lighter storm that season, the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 (another moniker) took the city’s 30,000-plus residents by surprise when it crashed into Miami Beach at two o’clock in the morning on Sept. 18, 1926, just after the Kol Nidre service on Yom Kippur ended. It had squeezed through the Gulf Stream at its narrowest point, and “Miami Beach was isolated in a sea of raving white water,” Florida author Marjorie Stoneman Douglas wrote.
Now, we’ve obviously had our fair share of hurricanes since 1926, and at this point Miamians know more or less how the whirling bastards behave. But 84 years ago, folks down here took the eye of the storm for the end of the storm, and, well, the results weren’t pretty.
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. — PBS.org, “The Hurricane of 1926“
This page, at southbeach-usa.com, includes a list of the dead from the Miami mortuary; a photograph of a giant schooner, the Rose Mahoney, beached 200 yards from the waterfront on Bay Front Drive (see below); and a first-hand account of the the Big Blow by some poor sap who thought the hurricane had circled around for seconds when the storm resumed after the eye passed over. (CAVEAT: There’s plenty in this article that makes me questions its accuracy, including the author’s miscategorization of the storm. Proceed skeptically.)
At the time, the Great Miami Hurricane was considered the country’s greatest natural disaster since the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, according to the PBS article. It still ranks among the United States’ strongest and deadliest storms, having caused an estimated $1.5 billion in property damage and claimed 372 lives.
Miami being Miami, one of the city’s main concerns in the aftermath of the storm was assuring prospective investors that Miami remained a good place to buy. Again from the PBS article:
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.
84 years later, and the whistling hasn’t stopped. Just look up at the empty coastal high rises that drown the beach in shade by early afternoon. Weren’t they supposed to be “visionary” or something? I forget.
Below are a few more photos of Miami after the Big Blow (a priceless nickname, by the way, considering the city became the cocaine capital of the world). You can click HERE for a detailed report on the storm from October 1926.
Also, if you have a day in Miami history you think we should write about, please shoot us an email. We’re interested in the momentous stuff — Mariel, Hurricane Andrew, etc. — as well as events of arguably lesser historic significance, like Wide Right II (lest you forget the good kind of Miami Hurricanes).
— photo from www.southbeach-usa.com
— photo from www.floridamemory.com
— photo from “Miami: Then and Now,” by Arva Moore Parks and Carolyn Klepser