Ninety years ago this September, the unthinkable happened: a raging, Category 4 hurricane plowed across Miami Beach and slammed downtown Miami, leaving a trail of misery and destruction that hurricane experts say remains one of the costliest storms in U.S. history.
The statewide toll still seems incomprehensible: 372 killed and 43,000 left homeless, nearly a third of the county’s population. A wall of water 14 to 15 feet high rolled over Coconut Grove. Along Biscayne Boulevard, the surge reached 12 feet.
With the 2016 hurricane season opening Wednesday, the grainy images of stunned tourists and grieving residents stand as a grim example of the warning forecasters repeat at the start of every season: it only takes one. Hurricane Andrew — the lethal 1992 storm that almost always gets invoked as a cautionary tale — struck during a relatively quiet year and though fierce, was puny by comparison. Hurricane winds extended just 25 to 30 miles as the storm shot across the state in six hours. The 1926 storm was more like a steamroller, heaving its hurricane strength winds across 135 miles, from the Keys to West Palm Beach, for nearly 18 hours.
This year, forecasters have predicted a busier season than last year as an El Niño, which helps weaken storms, fizzles. The projected numbers — 10 to 16 named storms, four to eight hurricanes and one to four major hurricanes with winds about equal to the ‘26 storm — are near normal for the region.
But since 2005, no single major storm has struck the U.S., a lucky streak, and the longest on record, that forecasters worry has fueled complacency. Their biggest fear is that a powerful hurricane strikes a dense urban area, like Miami, and encounters a population not unlike the residents of 1926, who were ill prepared for a storm and its aftermath. There’s also this: the population of the county today is about 18 times greater. In 2008, researchers concluded modern-day costs from such a storm would fall between $140 billion and $157 billion. Today, it would be even more costly.
“It’s absolutely scary,” said Miami Dade College historian Paul George, who also leads downtown tours for HistoryMiami. “We try to make buildings stronger, especially with new codes. But let’s face it. Our most lavish buildings are on the water, whether it’s on Brickell, North Bayshore or Collins.”
Water remains the No. 1 killer in a hurricane. Between 1963 and 2012, 49 percent of the deaths in Atlantic storms were tied to storm surge, hurricane forecasters reported this week.
“You add it all up and water is what is killing folks overall the most,” said National Hurricane Center director Rick Knabb. “If you total all the fatalities, it’s well over 2,000.”
But it’s not just water. Heart attacks account for 13 percent of the deaths linked to storms; vehicular accidents for 5 percent. Even fleeing a storm has risks — 4 percent of deaths were blamed on evacuations.
“There are just so many ways that we need to take extra care and it’s not just getting through the storm,” Knabb said as he ticked off new measures launched this year, including storm surge warning maps and extended forecasts, to better prepare the public. “When you blend it all together, this is the work we have to do. All the different ways people dying either directly or indirectly, so this is the driver, the motivation for the content going forward.”
Which is a far cry from the tools available to Miami’s chief meteorologist, Richard Gray, in 1926. From his top floor downtown office, Gray watched helplessly as people streamed onto the streets when dawn broke on Sept. 18, unaware that the lull marked not the end of the storm but the halfway point for what would be it’s more vicious second act. Gray rushed downstairs, George said, trying to warn those nearby. But he could only do so much in the half hour before the storm revved back up. Most of those killed died during the second pounding.
“It was a real tragedy,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meteorologist Neal Dorst, who serves as the agency’s hurricane historian. “A lot of it had to do with the fact that you had a large portion of the population who were newbies.”
Clueless about storms, the victims had no idea “that you were in the middle of this huge vortex and there was another side,” he said.
After the storm now known as the “Great Miami Hurricane” made landfall on South Beach, it swept across Miami. Nearly every wood frame building in the young city splintered into an unrecognizable heap. Cars dangled by their wheels from the causeway to Miami Beach. Boats littered Bayshore Drive. A church parish became an emergency shelter for 200 children separated from their parents; the Farmer’s Curb market a temporary morgue. A special committee guarding the city’s dwindling 30-day food supply was given martial powers.
On Miami Beach, newly homeless headed for surviving hotels dressed, the Herald reported, “in bathing suits, night gowns and underwear, or less.”
In Moore Haven, more than a 100 miles to the north, flood water from the nearby lake reached about 12 feet in just 55 minutes, killing about 150.
Miami had just undergone a land boom that boosted the population from about 20,000 in 1920 to 150,000. So many people arrived so fast that some homeowners rented out their porches, George said. By 1926, the boom was over. But it had introduced the region to the concept of suburbs — Coral Gables, Hialeah and Miami Shores — that spread the population over a far greater area.
At noon the day before the storm struck, the Weather Bureau’s main office in Washington issued a storm warning. But a hurricane warning was not issued until 11 p.m., after most had gone to sleep.
On the morning of Sept. 18, the Miami Herald reported that the city stood on the “edge of a rushing gale,” with 150 mph winds recorded in the Bahamas the day before. “This is a very savage storm,” the weather bureau warned. A brief Associated Press story concluded that if the storm followed its predicted path, it would strike at the mouth of Biscayne Bay at “full blast.”
Many residents were caught off-guard, the Herald reported, expecting a daylight arrival. So when the eye passed about 6 a.m., they assumed it was over.
“The two phases were really confusing,” George said.
People who sought refuge on the mainland and started walking back across the causeways got trapped and swept out to sea. The vast wind field around the slow-moving storm generated a massive storm surge that witnesses said submerged Miami Beach, Dorst said.
On the mainland, the smokestack at Jackson Memorial Hospital toppled over, cutting off power. Another smokestack at a city incinerator also collapsed, killing two workers. Hundreds of homes in the city’s black neighborhoods were damaged and the Miami River overflowed. The storm surge also flooded the Florida Power & Light plant, knocking out all but one boiler. The storm also sheered off about nearly two-thirds of the plant smokestack that measured 20 feet across and 225 feet high.
When it reached Hialeah, a new city on its way to becoming sporting capital of the world with a thoroughbred track, greyhound racing and jai alai, the storm was even more relentless: 70 percent of the city was flattened. In Country Club Estates, the Horseshoe Inn floated four feet from its foundation. The Arabian Nights Inn, the Herald reported, “went down in a heap.”
Once the storm passed, its backside took one last swipe. With winds now blowing from onshore to off, Dorst said, it pushed all that water back out, carrying whatever bodies or debris it contained back into Biscayne Bay.
“That was a huge health problem with the dead bodies and animals,” he said.
What may be surprising is how quickly the city rebuilt. Three days after the storm, the Herald reported many streets had been cleared of debris, boards placed over shattered winds, gas restored and even some water service running — though George said some of that was false bravado pushed by business owners and the tourism industry.
“By the mid ‘30s, things were probably better here, especially on the beach because of tourism and commercial aviation,” he said.
Like Andrew, the storm also spurred reform with the nation’s first building code, which was eventually duplicated around the country.
Such a large storm is unusual, Dorst said, but not unheard of in modern times. The cloud shield from Hurricane Allen in 1980, which swelled to a Cat 5, covered the entire western half of the Gulf of Mexico, he said. What matters is where a storm makes landfall. Hurricane Brett in 1999 packed 145 mph winds but did little damage when it came ashore in a sparsely populated stretch of the Texas coast.
Since Andrew, hurricane forecasting has made big strides. Super computers have improved forecasts by 20 percent in the past five years. The hurricane center’s forecast model, the Global Forecast System, has also been souped up to provide hourly guidance to meteorologists up to five days out. Forecasters can also predict inland flooding and now have storm surge maps, which they hope to use to issue surge warnings as well as storm warnings next year. But even with the tools, Knabb said the agency’s best tool is the public preparation: having a storm kit, evacuation plan and a way to track family.
“All of the new products and warnings and everything we do as government officials is not going to [matter].” he said, “unless people get ready in advance.”