In the pre-dawn hours of September 18, 1926, one of the most destructive hurricanes in U.S. history roared into Miami, Florida. If a comparable storm struck the same area today it would rank as the most expensive hurricane in the United States.
The storm may have formed somewhere near the west coast of Africa in the second week of September, but it was not detected by meteorological analysis until Sept. 14th. By then it was a couple hundred miles northeast of St. Kitts in the Lesser Antilles. The next day, a ship encountered the storm at sea and it was already a major hurricane. On a west-northwsterly course, it kept clear of the Antilles, but struck the Turks and Caicos Islands on the morning of Sept. 17th. It left tremendous destruction and nearly the entire population of 6500 homeless. It then passed over Andros Island that evening.
The hurricane had knocked out communications with the Bahamas, and the last report from Nassau that the U. S. Weather Bureau received was of light winds and no pressure change. The Miami office finally issued a hurricane warning at 11 PM that night from Key West to Jupiter. But few people were up that late to hear the warning. Fewer knew what danger they were in. South Florida had just gone through a real estate boom and many residents were new to the South. Few understood what a hurricane was.
During the night, winds in Miami ramped up, and the rain came in squalls. Pe0ple who awoke to the rising storm winds found the power was out and could not listen to the radio warnings. Many had to deal with their unprecedented experience of a hurricane alone or huddled together in the dark. The storm surge completely inundated Miami Beach. Winds were recorded at 145 mph (233 km/hr). As dawn approached, the eye came over Miami. People were relieved to hear the winds slacken, and the rain end. Many went outside to view the damage. Some got in their cars and began to sight see.
Richard Gray, the meteorologist in charge of the Miami Weather Bureau, saw people out in the streets from his third floor office in downtown Miami. He called out to them, warning any who would listen that the storm was not over. They were in the calm eye of a giant vortex, and at any minute the horrible storm winds would begin again. But he could only do so much. Thirty-five minutes later, the trailing side of the eyewall came over them. Many of the curious were indeed caught in the sudden increase of winds. Some were injured or killed.
The storm was huge. Hurricane-force winds were felt from St. Lucie to Key West. Six hours after landfall in Miami, the storm’s eye crossed into the Gulf of Mexico near Punta Rassa on Florida’s west coast. It regained some strength it had lost crossing the peninsula and within a day and a half approached Pensacola. But the storm veered west before hitting the panhandle. The hurricane slowed and weakened before making landfall in Alabama with winds estimated at 115 mph (185 km/hr). It further weakened and eventually dissipated as a depression over Louisiana, unleashing heavy rains along its path.
Miami lay in ruins, hundreds were dead, and thousands of newly-built homes lay in rubble. The railroad was damaged, so relief supplies were slow in arriving. Martial law was declared. Many of the city’s new residents took advantage of Henry Flagler’s offer of free passage and boarded northbound trains never to return. The real estate bubble had collapsed several years before, but south Florida went into a recession that took years to recover from.
The University of Miami opened its doors shortly after the storm. The sports teams for the school adopted the nickname “The Hurricanes” in honor of the catastrophe.