It came with little warning. No weather apps or forecast tracks on TV. It came when Fort Lauderdale didn’t even have a weather station to beam a radio warning (and there was only one radio station in South Florida at that). And the barely manned weather station in Miami had its measuring instruments blown off its roof before the storm hit its peak.
This was a Category 4 monster that struck at a time before we named storms. Only afterwards was it given a Hemingwayesque moniker: The Big Blow.
The center of the storm struck Miami on Sept. 18, 1926, with winds up to 150 mph. It wiped out structures in Miami Beach and downtown Miami. Bodies were discovered in cars buried underneath sand.
It wreaked havoc from the Keys to Fort Pierce. Most of the 350 buildings and homes in Fort Lauderdale – then with a population of just 12,000 – were either destroyed or suffered major structural damage.
Historian Stuart McIver gives the account of Bob Mathews, who worked at the Fort Lauderdale Daily News. Mathews lived with his family on the Isle of Venice, off Las Olas Boulevard.
“At 2:30 he was awakened by his mother’s screams,” writes McIver. “She had found the first floor of their home four feet deep in water.” When the water reached the second story “the roof went off – all in one piece,” Mathews said. “We lost everything we had. It’s the scaredest I’ve ever been.”
The roof of the Broward County Courthouse also blew off, and the county seat building was destroyed. Accounts from Black neighborhoods west of the railroad tracks showed how far tidal surges had come. One resident reported that “people were walking neck deep in water with their children on their heads.”
People literally did not know what hit them. Neither those who had recently settled here nor tourists had any idea about hurricanes. Tourists in the Broward Hotel were shocked when a ferocious gust of wind smashed the glass in their room’s window and yanked the sheets right off of them. At about this time a clerk frantically knocked on doors to get guests out to safer shelter. “Is this a bad storm?” they asked naively.
Similar scenes played out in Miami. As the eye passed over the city, bestowing its deceptive calm, hundreds who believed the storm was over filled the streets gawking at cratered buildings. As people shouted warnings to get back inside, the raging winds returned and a new surge of water came vaulting over canals and pouring down the avenues. Many of those who had ventured outside were among the 100 dead counted in Miami.
The only media notice ran the morning of the storm, a brief in the Miami Herald about a severe gale expected to hit the Bahamas. According to the National Weather Service, it would only graze Florida’s coast.
While the headline in a Philadelphia newspaper – “Southeastern Florida Wiped Out” – was an exaggeration, it wasn’t far off. Property losses were the worst in U.S. history to that date. Official Florida death totals were up to 650 people reported lost, and 800 never accounted for. Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Tidball declared martial law, and deaths were estimated between 15 and 100.
A few hundred deaths came as the storm proceeded onward. Weak dikes on Lake Okeechobee collapsed over the small town of Moore Haven, whose residents had no chance against a 15-foot wall of water. The storm moved into the gulf and went on to strike Pensacola and Mobile before blowing out in Mississippi.
Let’s hope it’s another hundred years until the next bad one. Perhaps by then those scientists who figured out how to blow an asteroid off course can turn to shredding storms in the atmosphere before they make it from Africa to the Caribbean.