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.
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
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.
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
D. L. GREGORY By-the-Sea F. L. WRAY
October 5, 1926
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
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
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
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,