Friday, June 9, 2017

Eye-witness Account of the Great Hurricane of 1926

The Great Hurricane of 1926
with a riveting eye-witness account and photos from the
 Flamingo Gardens Archives

Hurricanes are always in the news this time of year, reminding us of Hurricane Andrew’s anniversary and the need to be prepared.  There is a long history of hurricanes in South Florida, but the Great Hurricane of 1926 stands out from all others.

The disastrous Hurricane of 1926 had a profound effect on South Florida and its residents, including Flamingo Gardens' founders, Floyd L. and Jane Wray.
Hollywood, Florida, September 20, 1926
The Wrays were living in Florida for less than a year.  He was selling real estate in Hollywood.  They weathered the storm with friend D.L. Gregory who wrote the riveting eye-witness account that follows.  It describes what they were doing before, their efforts to fight the storm, and the aftermath. When the storm subsided, there were 30 sleeping in the house including neighbors whose homes were destroyed.  

As bad as it was, up north the destruction was greatly exaggerated.  The New York Times reported a thousand dead and "scores of towns razed or flooded."  A Philadelphia newspaper ran a headline: "Southeastern Florida Wiped Out."  

Wray knew there would be no real estate business for a long time to come. The storm led him to a new career in citrus.  By 1927, he had established Flamingo Groves, which was to become the Flamingo Gardens we cherish today.

The Hurricane

On September 18, 1926, 25 years before they started naming hurricanes, the Great Hurricane roared through.  

Two months earlier, in July, a hurricane had passed out at sea.  There was some rain, wind squalls, and high waves that reached the boardwalk.  Newcomers, like the Wrays, were left unprepared for what was to come, thinking that hurricanes were not so bad, and maybe even a bit exciting. 

Ships first reported the big storm on September 11.  It went north of Puerto Rico, so there was little solid information.  Storm warnings came from Washington, DC in those days and were passed on to field offices like Miami.  As of the morning of September 17, less than 24 hours before the 60-mile-wide storm made landfall, there was no warning issued.   At noon, Miami was authorized to post storm warnings (one step below hurricane, or winds of 48 to 55 knots).  The first serious warnings did not come until the barometer began to drop rapidly around 11 PM the night of September 17.

Early the next morning, official weather bureau records “… recorded a maximum velocity of 128 miles per hours from the east or southeast at 7:30 a.m. The extreme velocity cannot be determined from the records, but it was probably between 140 and 150 miles per hour.  The anemometer blew away at 8:12 a.m. at which time it was recording 120 miles per hour.”

The storm devastated the Miami/Broward area.  Streets remained flooded for more than a week after in many places.  On October 9, the Red Cross reported that 372 died in the storm and over 6,000 were injured (one account said more than 800 were never accounted for).  Many who were unaware of the danger went outside to look around as the eye passed over and were killed when the winds returned.  Property damage was the worst in U.S. history, estimated at $105 million at the time, which would be more than $164 billion in today’s dollars.  In comparison, Hurricane Andrew’s estimated damage was about $25 billion, but with better forecasting, instant communications, and better building codes, the death toll was 56. The 1926 hurricane traveled north a bit, then turned toward Lake Okeechobee, where the dikes were breached, and hundreds of people drowned leading to advances in flood control.The Red Cross reported 150 corpses, but said many bodies were never found, and estimated the death toll was as high as 300. The storm moved on to the Gulf, then came ashore again near Pensacola, and finally in a weakened state traveled to Mississippi and Louisiana.  Because of the widespread destruction, Miami appointed a chief building inspector who created and enforced the first building code in the United States, which was over time put into effect in more than 5,000 U.S. cities.  

Eye-witness Account

A transcript of the letter above, written by D.L. Gregory soon after the storm, follows.  He was with the Wrays during the storm.  (Some corrections were made for clarity.  Most corrections are to punctuation.  Even after many days had passed, his exhaustion and stress were evident.  The letter is an outpouring of what he remembered.  In the entire letter, there were only a few periods to end sentences -- just thought after thought with commas sometimes between them.)

D. L. GREGORY                                          By-the-Sea                                                   F. L. WRAY

                                                                                                             Hollywood, Fla.
                                                                                                                     October 5, 1926

Dear Everybody:-

This is really the first time I have had time to write a letter, but I guess when you see some of the Pathe News Pictures you will know that we had our troubles. I will try to tell you a little about it if you will be willing to read a typewritten letter, for it goes so much faster, and I don’t have much time.

Friday, September 17, to start with, the College that I was affiliated with gave a concert of the faculty only, with a reception after.  The concert was given in the Methodist Church.  About four o’clock that afternoon, the paper came out with an announcement in one-inch type for one hundred men on the waterfront at once to fill sand bags and re-enforce all the buildings.  These men were extra as the city had all of their men working there all day Friday, also that all people should be off of the street by midnight.  On account of the storm we had had a few months ago, no one felt that this storm would amount to much, so we gave our concert to a crowded house, and as the program was a good one, there were so many encores that everyone stayed until nearly twelve o’clock. From nine-thirty on, we didn't say anything, but two men stood at the front doors and held them shut, and also the doors into the Sunday School rooms, but we felt the church was secure.

At twelve o’clock  we went to the beach, and while the wind was blowing terribly. It was from the north, and we all felt that there would be no damage by water for the ocean was quite rough but nothing to worry about, so the workers along the waterfront stopped work about twelve-thirty but stayed down there.  We came home and went to bed, but the wind blew and howled, so it was hard to sleep, but Mrs. Wray went to sleep and slept until we called her at five-thirty.

This first storm kept up until about four o’clock when it seemed to die down, and we thought it had passed without doing any harm. In just a few minutes, the wind started to blow again, this time straight from the east.  There had been an Essex stalled in front of our house in the storm, and I got up to see whether there was anyone in the car, but the wind was so strong that I couldn't go out into it, but when another car passed saw that there was no one in it. The wind blew so hard that it would make the lights go on and off in this car, so I called Floyd and as I did one of the iron rods on the awning gave way and started to rip a hole in the front screen.  He got up, and I held the flashlight for him as our light went out in the first storm.  We felt so badly about the small hole in the screen and got the awning fixed and then had to move all the porch furniture into the living room. Then the other rod broke, and when Floyd reached out to the screen, the wind pulled him, screen, rod, and all, out. I grabbed him around the knees, and he got straightened, but the awning went, then the other one. Then the rain, which had been coming down in torrents, started down the chimney, and I started to mop. The tile was flying everywhere, and we looked out the window and saw the Essex go down the street. I think the fastest it will ever run.  By that time, it started to get light so we could see better, and one of us held our front door shut all the time. We would see a half of a house go down the street then a whole garage.  Twice we saw garages lifted completely off of cars, and the cars standing out in the open. The wind caused a short in a car about a block away, and the horn blew for two hours until the batteries ran down.

All this time, I was wiping water, and taking up rugs, and trying to fasten windows more securely, and Floyd was holding the front door shut.  About five-thirty, something hit the back window in the bedroom, and the screen went there, and as we were trying to figure what to do, we saw Betty and her mother huddled in the back garage apartment, their roof had blown off, and they were there alone. The wind was so strong that Floyd could not stand up to go after them, so we motioned for them to stay there until he could make it to them. About six-thirty, Floyd made it over to them.  Then they couldn't get back as the tiling and roofs were flying in every direction, and they stood the chance of being hit.  They were there for about one-half hour. When the storm seemed to subside, and by carrying Betty, then going back for Mrs. Bowen, they made it here.

There was a slight lull when the wind turned about seven in the morning, and this time came southeast.  The rain stopped, and in its place came salt water in sheets just as if it were waves.  Then is when we started to work in earnest, for when a sheet of this water came, we couldn't see the house next door, with the result that the water rose about ten inches in twenty minutes, and after each gust, when we could see, something would be gone.  The water came up onto our front porch, so we all decided to go to the garage.  We went there, but the roof had gone. 

First, I must tell you that Floyd tried it first and was blown about three feet out of his course on the way. He took one [step] at a time, and by both bracing, we made it.  By the way, Rub thought it was a circus. The garage floor was full, and the car was drenched as the water was simply flowing in from the apartment above. Well, we looked like drowned rats.  Floyd had on his heavy hunting boots, and I made him take them off. The water came in on us, but we didn't say a word.  All at once, the water started to recede as rapidly as it came, and the rain started.  You will never know the relief to all when we could taste the fresh water in the place of salt. The wind went down also, and about ten o'clock, Floyd started out. 

First, the people on the corner from us came all wet.  Their roof had gone. Next Floyd went to Lamonaca, and they were all but crazy.  Their roof had gone, and they were huddled in one corner, with their two babies.  They came over to our house, and I got out the old stern heat, which we had gotten back in the good old days in Miami. When the crowd was too great then, we had to cook with it once in a while.  I started to make coffee, and the more I made, the more people Floyd sent in. Where they came from, and where they went, is more than I will ever tell you.  One man had been in an apartment with wife and five children, when the whole thing went, leaving them not high and dry, but low and wet, under a table with a mattress to protect them. Next Floyd went to a grocery that had blown down and salvaged as much as possible.  In less than a half-hour after the storm, our house, which seemed to be the only dry spot, because the roof held and no water came in, was crowded.

At twelve o’clock, Mrs. Bowen and I went over to the school about two blocks away and helped there as best we could.  They were bringing in the wounded by the car full. Some people had been blown away from their families, and I never want to see anything like it again, legs broken, one man with a broken back, faces and arms torn, and the people so afraid it was awful. There was no water to do anything with, and outside you had to pick your way around in the water, for the streets were covered with wires, boards, roofs and everything you could think of.  We housed thirty the first night, six in a bed and the rest on the floor, and glad to get the floor where it was dry.

I think regardless of what is said to the contrary, Dania got it the worst.  Everything is demolished there, except the bank and the Dania Beach Hotel, to such an extent that it will have to be rebuilt. So many people were drowned there and at Davie. I am going to cite two cases, which are parallel to possibly hundreds of others. One woman was taken off of a houseboat.  She had gone out to take care of a maternity case on this houseboat and had taken her nine-year-old son with her. The night of the storm the baby was born, and died from exposure also in the midst of the storm. The mother died. There was a man on the boat about seventy, and the boat broke away from its holding, and they drifted.

October 9, 1926

Was called down to the Relief Room and this is the first opportunity I have had to write since. Will start where I left off.

These people drifted all day Saturday, and all night people tried to swim to them, but it was impossible, and all of the other boats were either sunk or up on dry land having been thrown there by the high water and the wind. When these people were finally rescued, they were sure in awful shape.

Another woman and her son were adrift on a barn door from Saturday morning about five o'clock until Sunday afternoon.  Their house had blown down and a beam, which fell, hit her husband in the head and knocked him unconscious.  The woman and her son, nine years old, managed to get him on the barn door. As the water came up so high, they could not stand up, and they floated tied to this door.  The man died about an hour after they got on the door, and they were not found for over twenty-four hours after this.  The woman was sure brave, for they found them floating out into the Everglades, and when they took them off of the door, she had her husband taken to an undertaking room, and they buried him at once. Then she said that she would have to have some attention, and it was found that she was badly injured, but she has never uttered one complaint.

There were five babies born in the temporary hospitals the first night after the storm, and there has been about three a day ever since. All of them have been good babies.  We have had the pleasure of furnishing several of them with all kinds of clothing, as there was only one woman who was able to save any of her baby things.

The way everyone worked will never be forgotten. There was lots to be done, and as everyone was in the same fix, all water soaked and nothing dry to put on. The Red Cross was on the job as soon as it was possible to be on the job, and the first thing they took care of was food, and then the distribution of clothes.  Rich and poor alike had to be clothed. I loaned and borrowed until I had to stop or go like Eve myself.  Food was furnished by requisition for almost two weeks, also coal, oil, and stoves and water. 

We had a nice clean time washing dishes.  All the water was salt water and dirty. We managed to catch a tub full when it rained, but to wash dishes for thirty, it didn't last long. There was no water for the bathrooms, and you can imagine how hard that was.  We just locked our bathroom door and wouldn't let anyone in it. 

The hard part was that there was no place else to go, but at that, we were better off than the places that were used for hospitals and sleeping.  The Hollywood Beach Hotel was thrown open for refugees, but there was no water, no lights, and wet beds. The hotel stood the storm fine, that is above the first floor, but the windows were broken out, and everything was soaked. The people were allowed a glass of water three times a day, and the only way that they could wash was to get salt water out of the ocean, and they had to get that themselves.  You can imagine, with one dress, and that wet and dirty, how they looked. And that went on for almost two weeks. 

In fact, the water is not down at the hotel yet, but it is closed.  In the front of the hotel along the boardwalk where there was so much damage done by high water and wind, just to show you the force of it, there was a drug store that had just opened, and they had installed a fountain that weighed two tons.  It was moved to the back of the store a distance of twelve feet, the partitions all along the hotel front that se

(The letter ended abruptly and was never finished.)

Hurricane Photos from the 
Flamingo Groves/Flamingo Gardens Archives

Methodist Church, Hollywood, FL after the Hurricane

The Wrays and Gregory were at a concert in the Methodist Church when the winds started to pick up.   The concrete block structure sustained severe damage. Some accounts say it was totally destroyed.

Homeseekers Beach Office
For a time, Wray sold real estate in Hollywood-by-the-Sea for Homeseekers. 

The Red Cross

The Red Cross arrived as soon as possible after the storm and raised funds throughout the country for the relief effort. In a Chicago Daily Tribune article published on September 23, they estimated 50,000 homeless and more than 4,000 injured and needing aid.

On West Dixie in Hollywood
Major flooding remained in some areas of South Florida for more than a week, and hundreds drowned when the dike collapsed at Lake Okeechobee. In response, the State Legislature created the Okeechobee Flood Control District. President-elect Hoover visited and authorized cooperation with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to create a comprehensive long-term plan for flood control in South Florida.

House in Ranches
Wood homes were reduced to rubble throughout South Florida.  The storm led to creation of the first building codes.

Train Station 1929

The concrete block structure was damaged, but the trains ran. The first aid to arrive was a relief train to Miami guarded by state militia that brought medical staff, drugs, water, and other supplies as soon as the storm passed.   

Despite it all, in the face of adversity, life goes on, as this photo attests.  A woman out with her children getting some fresh air, one riding a tricycle, on the sidewalk in front of their damaged, but still standing, home.