In 1916, my grandmother, Nell Hurst, was 14 years old when she traveled by train from her family’s farm in Thomasville, Georgia, to Miami, Florida. Making the long trip with her was her 18 year old sister Norma, (who I called Auntie), and their mother, my great-grandmother, Ludie. My great-grandfather Charlie had passed away and Ludie decided that her small family needed a fresh start in life. So, packing up her daughters and enough food for a couple of days train travel, the three left Georgia behind.
Grandma’s older brother Russell, his wife and their four children, had settled in Miami some time earlier, and this was the place that my great-grandmother had decided would become home to them all. She had purchased a large house which would not only provide shelter for herself and two daughters, but income as well, for she turned it into a boarding house, offering two hot meals a day and a clean room to a dozen or so of the settlers.
Many of these new arrivals came into this developing region for the same reasons as my great-grandmother had; things had not soured for them in whatever place they had journeyed from, and/or they had little money, education or means of making much of a future for themselves anywhere else. South Florida offered land and opportunity in abundance. “Homesteading” allowed a person to freely take a large parcel of land and work it for 5 years, at the end of which the government would give them ownership. To someone who had a lack of money, but not ambition, this was a most viable option. Another draw was the 75 degree weather in the middle of January. This afforded the poor year ‘round farming, while allowing the wealthy the luxury of sunbathing on white-sand beaches while blizzards paralyzed the great northern cities. Thus, the 1920’s “land boom” was born.
In order to fill the demands of the wealthy, men and their families flowed into Miami and the surrounding areas to construct the beautiful mini-palaces that were needed. But, the vast majority of South Florida’s residents were living in houses that were a far cry from these luxurious estates. The homes which belonged to the “worker bees” were built of whatever wood could be found or bought cheaply, and hurriedly slapped together to provide some modicum of shelter for the fast-growing population.
Staying in South Florida through the summer months was something only the hardiest or most desperate did. In those long ago days there was no air conditioning to battle the summer’s terrible heat and humidity, and there was also enough wildlife to discourage many from year round residency. The ones who did stay had to deal with a vast array of flying, stinging, biting, insects, reptiles and animals, many of which were quite lethal. Mosquitoes and horse flies thickened the air at sun up and sun down in the hot months. And mosquitoes were known for spreading diseases through their painful bites. (My mother caught scarlet fever carried by one, and at 16 almost died from the illness.) To help keep these painful insects off of the skin, people would stuff their clothing with newspaper, hoping that the taste of inked paper might send these biting blood suckers in search of other victims not wrapped up in the daily news. Florida Panthers roamed freely, and Rattle Snakes, Coral Snakes, and Water Moccasins could be found around every homestead, and quite often, inside the home, too. Anti-venom was non-existent, as were most all of today’s medical treatments, but, even had they been available, there was no hospital in Miami to administer and care for the injured and ailing. My grandmother told me the story of Dr. James M. Jackson, Miami’s first permanent physician, making a house call to her home when she was 14 to treat her for the flu. She said that he sat at her bedside talking with her, and told her that he was building a hospital because “Miami has gotten so big now, and could use one.” Today, Jackson Memorial Hospital is renowned world wide for its cutting edge treatments of burns and other traumatic injuries, and has become one of the best teaching hospitals for such.
This tropical land offered its own brand of amazing beauty, though, which was – and still is – one of the greatest attractions of this wild but wonderful place. Beautiful Biscayne Bay, which hugs the southeast side of Miami, was alive with fish, and swirls or small eddies meant that many dozens of them were slicing through the currents in a particular spot, creating a rainbow-colored body of water that reflected the blues, golds and pinks from the many varieties swimming in great numbers there. Though Biscayne Bay was a glistening, tropical lure to those that sought respite from their daily work, or the frozen north, it was also a great source of income for many Miamians, making it a busy place of commerce for those trying to earn a living from what it so generously yielded. But while living on the edge of Biscayne Bay, with the Atlantic Ocean just beyond, brought both beauty and bounty to these residents and visitors, the harmonious union between man and water could change into a deadly combination in the blink of an eye.
The threat of a killer hurricane was a fact of life in South Florida, and people learned to live with the fear of them. But, most of the new settlers were unfamiliar with the dangers of these massive and deadly storms, for a “big one” had not hit the area in a long time. But even for those who had weathered previous storms, and for those who had not but took the threat of one very seriously, there was little they could do to prepare for the onslaught of one, as very little warning was given that a storm was going to hit. Few people owned radios, and those that did received old and, oftentimes, incorrect news. If Floridians were lucky, they had a few hours notice to tie down or protect what little property they might own and find strong enough shelter for themselves. And because many of the houses were hastily built, they were much too weak to survive a hurricane’s brutal blow, leaving those seeking protection within their substandard four walls at the mercy of the storm.
In the late summer of 1926, the people living in Miami and adjacent towns, as well as their aquatic neighbors in the surrounding bodies of water, were about to feel the punishment of a vicious storm which would bear down on all of life in south Florida, leaving no man or creature – on land or in the deep – untouched or unchanged from its terribleness. This hurricane, which had been born in the Cape Verde Islands, off of Africa’s western coast, grew into a monster as it made its way across the hot waters of the Atlantic, taking direct aim on Miami. The beautiful coastal town was about to feel the wrath of a storm more intense than any other in the town’s recorded history. Not only would this hurricane nail the coffin closed on South Florida’s 1920’s land boom, which had been dealt a death blow from the stock market crash the year before, but it would gain the infamous reputation as the worst natural disaster the United States – and most especially, Florida – had ever suffered.
In the early morning hours of September 18, 1926, the hurricane made its final leg across the Atlantic Ocean, moved into Biscayne Bay, and then slammed into South Florida with the force of a mighty sledge hammer. 150 mph winds and an enormous tidal surge crushed Miami and all of the adjacent towns in the storm’s 60 mile wide expanse, which had become equal parts wind, rain, ocean and bay. The Miami River, which meanders through the city, also overflowed as a result of the other two bodies of water being pushed into it. And, so, at 2:00 A.M on that September morning, Miami was not only being beaten and battered to death, but the beautiful young city was being drowned as well.
The afternoon before the storm, on Sept. 17th, Grandma, 24, and Auntie, 28, were visiting the home of their brother Russell, and his wife Wilhelmina, (who I called Aunt Bill), and their four very young children. My great-grandmother Ludie, had stayed behind at the boarding house, giving the two young women some time to enjoy a sunny summer afternoon. Uncle Russell had proudly painted his home white (a luxury at that time), and Aunt Bill had adorned it with handmade items, as well as a few highly prized store bought ones. The front door was always open to family and friends, and people gathered there often to discuss the day’s events. Grandma said that there was usually a “pot of something goin’ on the stove.” This might have been vegetable soup, greens (turnip, mustard, or collards, cooked with salt pork, or ham hocks), or beans. Although it was an inviting and warm place, it was one that had been poorly constructed, and while it was able to keep the typical afternoon downpours out, everyone would learn soon enough that it was frighteningly inadequate in keeping the pounding, howling winds and water of a monster hurricane from breaking its way in.
The family spent a pleasant afternoon together, eating their supper at a table set up beneath a large shade tree. Because homes had no air conditioning then, meals were often eaten outside, under the thick blanket shade of a mango or avocado tree. But by late afternoon on that September day, the sun’s light quickly faded, bringing a premature darkness to the endless expanse of sky. It was a sudden but certain indication that something far greater and more sinister than night was fast approaching. A heavy fear settled in the pit of their stomachs, for they began seeing it – and smelling it. When a hurricane is ready to make its presence known, before the winds begin their wailing and the rains cut like knives, you can smell the sea. A storm pushes the scent of the ocean ahead of its assault, almost as if it is sending notification of its impending arrival in the most bizarre and cruel way. Soon after the scent was recognized, the winds began to pick up, and the rain slashed down in vertical, then horizontal heavy sheets. Without question, that thing which they feared the most, other than deadly widespread fever outbreaks, was now a reality; a killer hurricane was coming ashore in the city of Miami.
My family quickly prepared as best they could, gathering oil lamps, canned food, blankets and pillows, and then anxiously waited together in the living room of the house where they would ride out the storm. As the hurricane slammed into the coastline, bringing the Atlantic and Biscayne Bay in with it, they hunkered down in their wooden home, listening in hushed terror as the walls groaned from the roaring wind, and mounting water that whipped and pushed at the house. The combination of ocean, bay and Miami River spilling over into the streets and yards, carrying anything that was not bolted, tied or cemented down. Even if something had been secured, chances were it was ripped away by the power of the turbulent waters and tearing winds. If one could have stood out in the storm, they would have seen boats, trees, houses, churches, cars, furniture, even livestock, floating by in the flood. And human beings were not exempt from becoming part of the bizarre river of debris. As the eye of the storm passed over the city, the winds quieted and the sun shone weakly through the overcast skies. Many residents were unaware of the mechanisms of a hurricane – that being that the eye or center of it was only the halfway point of the storm, with the east or most intense side yet to come. And so many came out of their homes to assess the damage and were caught outside on the backside of it. Those poor souls never had a chance to make it back over the threshold into the tenuous safety of their homes. They were swept away within seconds. And there were also those victims who did not leave their homes, but whose homes left them. They broke up as easily as a house of cards, and the pieces were scattered about – and so were the occupants that had been hanging on inside.
Aunt Bill and Uncle Russell’s house trembled and shook as it took a terrible beating. The wind’s wail was a crescendo, and as its pitch grew into a loud frenzy each person in the living room would unconsciously rise up off of their seat in sync with the storm’s scream. As it abated for a moment, each person would exhale and lower themselves back down in their seat. The walls looked as though they breathed, for the pressure made them inflate and deflate as surely as if they had lungs.
Suddenly, everyone heard a very loud cracking and ripping noise above them. Gazing up in absolute horror, my family realized that the roof was tearing away. It peeled back as easily as the lid on a can of Bartlett pears, allowing the violent storm to enter from above, and then beat down, without mercy, on my family huddled in a clump below. They knew that if they were to survive they had to get themselves and the small children out of the house. Though the windows were shutter-less, the rain was so thick and it was so dark that it made it impossible to see if their neighbor’s home still had its roof, or if the home itself was there at all. Uncle Russell told the family that they had no other choice but to chance that both home and roof were still in tact, and that they must try to make it over there, for that was their only hope for survival.
Uncle Russell, carrying his 18 month old child in his right arm, forced the door open with his left, and using his body, held it ajar against the pounding rain and wind as the family pushed through. Like a human chain, adults and children entwined their arms through each other’s so that no one would be sucked away by the wind and rising water. Then they bent their heads against the howling storm and slowly moved out into it. The eight people made their way through the avocado and mango trees in the side yard, sheltering themselves by the largest of them for a brief moment, in order to steady themselves and catch their breath, for the wind and rain beat down on them with such force that it was hard to breathe, much less stand or walk. On they moved, towards their neighbor’s home, inch by inch, foot by foot, from tree to tree. Finally, through the sheets of rain, they could see that the neighbor’s house was still standing and the roof was on. Grandma told me many years later, when she was in her 90’s, that she could still see, in her mind’s eye, her neighbor bracing the door open for them; the light from inside his home casting him in silhouette as he anxiously waited for them in his doorway. The neighbor had heard their roof and home being torn apart and knew they would try to make it over to his place if they were still alive, so he’d kept watch for them, finally making out their storm-battered forms weaving among the native trees. At last, they made it to the side door, and pushed through into the safety and shelter of his home.
Through the long hours of that morning, they stared up at the ceiling, watching the shadows from the flames of oil lamps dance on the ever-widening water-stains. They watched this home’s walls breathe, as well, and listened to the screeching winds outside, all the while hoping, praying and bargaining with God to not let this house’s roof and its trembling walls be torn apart, too.
Finally, around noon on Sept. 18th, after more than 12 terrifying hours, the storm moved on. The winds quieted, the skies began to clear, and before too long Miami’s most beloved resident, the sun, returned. It shone with great brilliance, as if to comfort the horror-stricken and exhausted hurricane survivors, and reassure all of them that not everything had been lost or taken from them.
My family was among those fortunate survivors, for the neighbor’s roof had held, and they, too, walked outside to feel the sun and to see what was left of their beloved home, and town – a town which they had worked so hard to help build. Not much was left of either; the hurricane was gone, but had taken Uncle Russell’s home and most of Miami with it. As if that weren’t enough, the storm left behind a most macabre calling card, one that would help the city of Miami to always remember her passing. As my grandmother and family looked in awe at the destruction around them, something up in the trees caught Grandma’s eye. “Look up!” she yelled. “Look up!” There, hanging down from and among the branches like some awful fruit were fish – fish of every shape, size, type and color! The fish that had so colorfully filled Biscayne Bay had been brought in on the hurricane’s gigantic storm surge, leaving them dangling and entwined in the trees as the water pushed through. Grandma said that it looked as though they grew on the branches, instead of the usual succulent fruits. She also said that the hot sun of the tropics baked those fish quickly and thoroughly, until the air was heavy with the rotten smell of them. It took weeks for the tired, hungry and many homeless people of Miami to pluck them from the trees, and it took just as long for Miami’s sweet breezes to clear out the terrible smell of them.
My great-grandmother’s boarding home had withstood the ravages of the storm, and Uncle Russell, Aunt Bill and their 4 children lived at the home until Uncle Russell completed the building of a new and far stronger home for his family. And many of the living victims of the storm rebuilt their homes and lives there as well.
Though the September hurricane of 1926 was a strong force indeed, the pioneers of this wild and strange land were even stronger. They believed in themselves and in the city they had come to call home out of desperation and/or hope, and these brave people never allowed anything, even the most devastating forces of nature, to stop them from building the future that they’d dreamed of. My grandmother and family lived out the rest of their lives in Miami, undaunted by what they had seen and lived through with this incredible storm. And they survived many other hurricanes, as well.
Today, when I’m preparing for another of South Florida’s blows, I do so in the ways that my grandmother taught my mother, and my mother taught me. But, I also have the advantage of up-to-the-minute weather reports through television, radio and computer. I have heavy storm shutters to protect me from the great winds and rain, and I have a home that was strongly built because of what we have learned through the mistakes that my ancestors and others’ ancestors made. When I lock myself away from the storm I feel protected, and I know that I have a much greater chance of walking out after it has passed than the early settlers did in their pathetically weak homes. And when I do come out to feel south Florida’s sun warm my skin once again, I’ll look up into the branches of the trees around me, wondering if I just might see fish poking through the leaves of mango or avocado trees, just as Grandma did so many years ago. After all, anything in this still strange and unpredictable land is possible.