This hurricane was sixty miles wide and it reached Florida at 150 mph, causing a death toll between 325 and 800 and a damage cost of more than $100 million.
During the night of September 18, 1926, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and several coastal locations in between were hit by sustained winds of 150 mph from a hurricane that was sixty miles wide as it made landfall in Florida. The death toll was estimated to be from 325 to 800. Several hotels along the coast had their skylights and windows shattered, and the water rose four feet deep in their lobbies.
In one instance, fearing that the walls might cave in, a building inspector ordered all women and children to move to another building farther back from the waterfront. The U.S. Weather Bureau in Miami said that no storm in previous history had done as much property damage.
In the early morning of September 17, the Weather Bureau in Washington issued an advisory about a very severe storm that was moving in the direction of Florida. Newspapers ran the advisory, but readers failed to take it seriously. By early evening the Washington Bureau was sending out hurricane warnings but again not many people took them seriously.
In 1926 there were few avenues for warning people. Only a few people owned radios and could hear the warnings being broadcast on southern Florida’s only radio station. All through the evening and night the barometer kept falling, flood waters were rising, and gale-force winds were being experienced all along the coast. Then, soon after midnight, September 18, the hurricane made landfall with tremendous force, knocking out all electrical power and overturning many buildings. People waited in the darkness. Skylights and windows in hotels were shattered, and the water rose four feet deep in the lobbies. In one hotel, fearing the walls would cave in, a building inspector ordered all women and children to move to another building farther back from the waterfront.
The storm had been born near the Cape Verde Islands off Africa on September 6, 1926. It moved across the Atlantic and into the Caribbean and was reported off St. Kitts on September 14. Two days later it had moved into the Bahamas, and by September 17, it began to take aim at southern Florida where it arrived early on September 18, as a category 4 hurricane. As the eye of the hurricane passed over Miami, hundreds of survivors crawled out of their places of refuge, thinking that the storm was over.
Thus, when the second half of the storm roared over the town, dozens were washed away. The storm crossed Florida before making a second landfall along the sparsely populated Alabama coast, still a powerful category 3 hurricane. Most of the coastal inhabitants had not evacuated, partly because they had not received the warnings and partly because the city’s relatively new population knew little about the danger that a major hurricane posed. Some tried to leave the barrier islands in the lull before the rear of the hurricane arrived, only to be swept off the bridges by the storm. Farther inland, Lake Okeechobee experienced a high storm surge that broke a portion of the dikes, flooded the town of Moore Haven, and killed many. Two years later, in the deadly Lake Okeechobee Hurricane, more than two thousand lives would be lost in this same area.
Most of the 200,000 people living in the storm’s projected path were new to Florida, lured here by the easy money of a land boom. Having never seen a hurricane, they had little knowledge of a storm’s destructive force. Striking some twenty-five years before hurricanes were named, the 1926 storm became known in southern Florida as The Hurricane or The Big Blow, a title it retained for sixty-six years until Hurricane Andrew arrived. The lure of the land boom was premature. The wild real-estate boom had collapsed. Millionaires at the end of 1925 had become poor folks by the middle of 1926. Many citizens skipped monthly payments and tax bills and, as a result, lost their homes.
Businesses closed down. The sun still shone, but its rays bounced off the bleaching skeletons of unfinished buildings, especially in Miami where damage was far more severe than anywhere else. A storm surge of sixteen feet was experienced there, gutting homes and offices and devastating the harbor. The damage toll soared to over $100 million in 1926 dollars. If a similar hurricane occurred today the damage bill would be more than $100 billion.