The “Greatest Storms on Earth” – Part III
This is a continuation of a series on the history of hurricanes in our area if you missed part you can find it online at coastalbreezenews.com under Tales told Twice archives.
“We had about thirty people that night to care for. Waves were washing in on the front porch and coming under the door. All of the chickens were drowning and one of the boys crawled out a back window and got what he could and we cleaned them.” Ted Smallwood, Chokoloskee, September 1926
In the U.S. the Great Depression started in October of 1929 - but for Floridians the economy collapsed three years earlier in September of 1926; and two years after that, in 1928, what little was left of the incredible 1920’s Florida Land Boom completely died. The adverse economic impact of two hurricanes on Florida has never been exceeded, with both of them occurring in September, one in 1926 (nicknamed the “Great Miami Hurricane”) and one in 1928 (nicknamed the “Okeechobee Hurricane”).
During the booming ’20s, and throughout the state, developers purchased raw land, platted it into lots and hired salesmen to promote and sell the lots: lots that were advertised in northern markets, purchased solely for speculation and resold several times for profit. A buying frenzy started and people who had never set foot in the state wanted to get their foot in the door. Many developers did not fill or build roads in their subdivisions, selling lots straight from the plat with advertised sketches of what was envisioned to be constructed in the future on lands that were often swamp or partially submerged. The term “purchasing a lot under water” was born.
Along the southwest coast of Florida proposed developments went on the market: Kice Island, just north of Cape Romano, was subdivided and platted and marketed. A huge subdivision called Poinciana, located in the heart of the Everglades with its headquarters on little Onion Key, accessible only by water up the Lostman’s River, was not only planned but staffed with sales people and provided potential residents tours by way of a road and boat trip from Miami. The project was sold as “The Coming Miami of the Gulf.” In Lee County, cattlemen laid out their old cow pastures into subdivisions and carried land plats, for everyone was selling land.
Weather wise, things in Florida for the most part seemed quiet, that is until September 14, 1926, when the hurricane later to be known as the “Great Miami Hurricane”, or simply “The Hurricane”, or “The Big Blow”, was reported over St. Kitts. By the 16th it was over the Bahamas, and by September 17th it was aimed directly at South Florida. But there was no alarm given, and even though the weather bureau at 10:00 a.m. on that morning issued an advisory about a “very severe storm”, few of the numerous new Florida residents, who had moved here during the boom, took notice. At 6 p.m. the Weather Bureau in Washington D.C. ordered hurricane warnings, but only the handful of people who owned radios and actually had them turned on got the word. Within hours, the winds started hitting the coast of Miami and Ft. Lauderdale with a 60-mile wide storm. At 2 a.m. on September 18th the hurricane struck the shore and residents heard the crash of collapsing buildings, glass breaking, and screaming. Soon the water was four feet high on Las Olas Blvd in Ft. Lauderdale, and in some places along the coast the ocean water rose to the level of the second floor of buildings, with the wind velocity at 100 mph.
At 6:30 a.m. the eye of the hurricane arrived and passed over Miami and, unfortunately, many present, knowing nothing about hurricanes, had no idea what this meant. They packed and boarded their cars to travel inland thinking the storm was over. The eye lasted thirty-five minutes, and then the winds came back even stronger, recorded at 140 mph in Ft. Lauderdale. A storm surge of 12 feet came up the rivers and canals and swamped the land. South Beach in Miami was the hardest hit. Many who tried to escape were washed away as their cars were last seen being washed off bridges and roads.
By noon on Saturday the hurricane had moved on heading northwest across the Everglades. It passed south of Lake Okeechobee but the winds pushed the high lake waters west toward the town of Moore Haven and, without warning, the muck dike gave out and 15 feet of water raced through the town, tearing out buildings as the flood poured through.
The 1926 hurricane continued its path west and the high winds blew the water out of the Barron River in Everglades City, while residents sought safety on the second floor of the Everglades Inn. As the storm passed the City, an eight foot surge of water rushed back filling cars up with mud, seawater, and sea creatures. The water was also blown out of Chokoloskee Bay, and Ted Smallwood reported that when the flood waters returned he had five feet of water under his store and salt water was driven about 100 feet back from the edge of the bay.
In Naples and Marco the high winds broke windows, and toppled trees and utility poles. In Ft. Myers it left the waterfront a mass of wreckage and debris. The impact could be felt as far north as Tampa, where archaeologist/ explorer Clarence B. Moore’s vessel the “Gopher” was wrecked in Tampa Harbor, ending his work in Southwest Florida. The 1926 hurricane exited into the Gulf of Mexico only to reappear again in Pensacola.
The death toll in Miami was at least 100, with most dying shortly after the eye passed, and in Moore Haven as many as 300 drowned. For the entire state the Red Cross showed 6,381 injured, 43,000 homeless and the property damage in 1926 dollars was estimated to be $159 million (over a billion dollars today). In Ft. Lauderdale martial law was declared as more than 3,500 buildings sustained major damage.
The two long term impacts of the 1926 “Great Miami Hurricane” were:
• The stories in northern newspapers drove a nail into Florida’s boom economy: The New York Times reported that a thousand were dead and “scores of towns razed or flooded”, while a Philadelphia newspaper’s headline simply said: “Southeastern Florida Wiped Out.” The economy got so bad that millionaires at the end of 1925 were literally poor by the end of 1926; and many solid citizens could not pay their taxes or their mortgage payments and lost their homes. On the east coast, land that had sold for $60,000 in 1925 was put on the market for $600 after the storm. To offset panic and stimulate business the Lee County Chamber of Commerce spent twenty-two thousand dollars to induce tourists to return for the winter.
• The flood and deaths in Moore Haven brought demands on the State of Florida and the Federal Government to move rapidly on the reclamation of the Everglades and on the planned massive drainage project of the Everglades. The U.S. Corps of Engineers got involved. Meanwhile the Poinciana development on Lostman’s River was destroyed and the thousands of lots already sold would years later be acquired and added to the Everglades National Park.
“We were lucky. Some of us survived,” Vernie Boots, who with two of his brothers were three of the seven people who lived through the night, out of the 63 who gathered in a home, both of his parents were lost. South Bay, Lake Okeechobee September 1928.
When Floridians thought that things could not get worse, exactly two years later, in September of 1928, the news that a hurricane had hit Puerto Rico, with an estimated $50 million in damages and over 200,000 people left homeless, reached Florida. Again, not much warning was given, and on September 15th, the hurricane, a category four, blew out the anemometer cups in the Bahamas before the highest wind speeds could be recorded. By nightfall the hurricane had reached West Palm Beach with winds over 150 miles per hour. After destroying 1,711 homes and damaging another 6,363 in West Palm Beach, the hurricane moved forward at 14 m.p.h. as it headed inland toward Lake Okeechobee.
At noon on the day of the storm, people around the lake were spreading the news of the storm. The water in the lake was abnormally high due to heavy rain which had raised the level of the lake by three feet in thirty days. Ten or more inches of rain were added by the hurricane, along with over 150 m.p.h. winds. Lake water was literally thrown over the dikes at southern towns; in the first hour water rose from zero to four to six feet. Water levels at eight feet were later recorded, with the roofs of some houses floating higher than the power lines. Florida’s single greatest recorded tragedy happened that night, a disaster that would repeatedly be compared to the Johnstown flood of 1889, and the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.
Around 8:30 p.m. the hurricane’s eye passed over the southeast corner of Lake Okeechobee and the dike gave way, sending six feet of water into the town of Belle Glade. Similar fates occurred along the entire southern boundary of the lake. Of the approximately 6,000 people, mostly farmers and laborers in the winter vegetable crop and sugar industry, who lived in the towns along the southern rim of the lake, including Moore Haven, Clewiston, Belle Glade and Pahokee, one person out of every three, or 2,000 people died that night. The individual stories were horrific, as those who survived reported that they were able to cut holes in their roofs to gain access above the rising water, while watching other houses float away and some houses flipping over with the residents inside.
As newspapers around the country ran headlines on September 18th “Florida Destroyed! Florida Destroyed!”, the death rate rose along the lake as relief efforts were first given to the coastal areas of Jupiter and West Palm Beach and it took a full three days for the word of the catastrophe at Lake Okeechobee to be discovered. Because of the bad publicity received two years earlier in 1926 and the resulting bust, some Florida officials downplayed what had occurred. Soon the Red Cross, having learned lessons from 1926, set up twenty-two emergency centers. But there were too many bodies to try to identify and the heat and conditions after the hurricane passed were unbearable. A mass grave was dug by a steam shovel at the Port Mayaca Cemetery, where the headstone reads: “To the 1,600 pioneers in this mass burial who gave their lives in the ’28 hurricane so that the Glades might be as we know it today.” When it was impractical to continue to bury the dead, many were burned.
The 1928 Hurricane left Lake Okeechobee and headed north and, while it did no direct damage to Southwest Florida, the actions taken after this hurricane would alter the environment of south Florida for decades to come. The Army Corps of Engineers increased the discharge for Lake Okeechobee with many constructed canals, and built eighty five miles of levees for the northern, eastern, and southern shores of the lake from 34 to 38 feet high. The Hoover Dike was constructed 18 to 20 feet higher than the normal lake level and the massive reconstruction of the drainage from Lake Okeechobee would result in a drop of the natural sheet flow of fresh water to the south by as much as six feet, altering the Everglades, and the Big Cypress Basin for generations.
“I was holding on to the roof and calling out to my mother, ‘Mama, are you there?’ and she answer, until after a while she didn’t answer anymore. Every hurricane season, it reminds you. And if a hurricane really hits….it reminds you. You never get over something like that.” Helen McCormick, who lived in Belle Glade in 1928, age 13, lost seventeen members of her family that day.
A year later, September 28, 1929 a hurricane that had hit Nassau, passed through Florida Bay and skirted the west coast of the state. The town of Everglades City got the brunt of it; at the peak of the storm, flood waters covered the Everglades Inn’s first floor again forcing refugees up to the second floor. Roofs of 60-65 houses were damaged by the storm. Meanwhile, the clam dredge leased by W.D. Collier to E.S. Burnham sank off of Pavilion Key on the storm and Burnham decided to close his clam factory located in Caxambas. It was later reopend by J. Harvey Doxsee.
A month later, by Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, when the rest of the country panicked as the stock market lost $14 Billion in value on a single day officially starting the Great Depression, most South Floridians already understood about living in economic depression and despair.
Craig Woodward moved to Marco Island in 1968 and has practiced law in Collier County since 1980. Craig has led a history tour of the Island for the Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Marco program.