Sunday, May 5, 2013

Recovering from a hurricane before FEMA: "Overwhelming" disaster of 1926

Miami 1926

By Jane Feehan

One of the most devastating storms to hit South Florida was the hurricane of 1926. Shoddy construction and an unprepared public in this developing area of the country could be faulted for much of the damage. The hurricane's destruction heralded an early arrival in Florida of the Great Depression (see prior post about this storm at:

Recovering from a hurricane was very different before the Federal Emergency Management Agency was established in 1979.  An examination of newspapers reporting on the storm’s aftermath reveals just how different.

The New York Times (Sept. 24, 1926) reported “conscription of all unemployed persons” was underway to help with “rehabilitating” South Florida.  Miami put out a call for 25,000 workers; Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale indicated they would employ 2,000 each in the cleanup. Several hundred members of the American Legion assisted “militiamen” and police in patrolling streets and highways to “apprehend” those who could not show they were employed. The objective: to put them to work clearing streets of debris left by the hurricane.

There was much to do, more than those "conscripted" could accomplish.

Scores of private vehicles were “commandeered” by authorities in the recovery process. The City of Miami delivered water and other supplies by tug boat across Biscayne Bay to Miami Beach. Hotels became makeshift hospitals. Contrary to reports in the North, many buildings remained standing, especially those of stucco construction but most residents lived in poorly-built houses. For those who lost their homes, five tent cities were set up in South Florida: one in West Palm Beach, two in Fort Lauderdale, one in Hollywood, one in Hialeah. More help was soon on the way.

Trains from Jacksonville brought doctors, nurses and medical supplies. Until they could get medical assistance, residents were urged to bathe in the ocean to prevent infection of minor cuts. Salt water, officials advised, bore antiseptic qualities. Medicinal alcohol was unavailable. One local doctor, it was reported, rowed to the tiny 300-resident village of Davie, west of Fort Lauderdale, to attend the injured. He said demand for “medicine liquor” caused warehouses in Miami to be emptied for the first time since that city became a bootlegging distribution point. The good doctor was later criticized for drunkenness while tending to his storm-affected patients.

Typhoid cases were reported in Miami Beach and Hollywood. In days, a flotilla of navy vessels arrived from Charleston bearing anti-typhoid vaccine. The Florida East Coast Railway offered free rides from South Florida to Jacksonville to “worthy applicants.” Communications were nearly non-existent the first few days after the Sept. 17 storm so cables went via Havana, Cuba. Restaurants in Miami served meals for free to storm survivors. Ships delivered donated food. At one point, so much food and other supplies came to South Florida it was turned away.

Days after the storm, President Calvin Coolidge asked citizens of the U.S. to contribute to the American Red Cross, calling the hurricane's aftermath and its recovery “overwhelming.” Within hours, $500,000 was collected; days later, more than $3 million filled the coffers. The Associated Press donated more than $200,000.  The Chicago Examiner launched its own fundraising campaign. The Miami News donated $1000.  Coolidge tapped Henry M. Baker as the national director of disaster relief for the American Red Cross; the organization was to manage and distribute all contributions.

On Oct. 14, 1926, the Miami News reported that 75 percent of families in need received some form of aid through the American Red Cross. About 14,600 people out of an estimated 20,000 received assistance that included supplies, food, lodging, seed, fertilizer, and burial payments. None of the aid “constituted permanent rehabilitation.”

Relief, not complete rehabilitation, was provided - something that has not changed even with FEMA. Federal disaster assistance does not make people whole again. Something else remains the same: Americans coming to the aid of fellow citizens in need.  Copyright 2013 Jane Feehan

Miami News, Sept. 19, 1926
Miami News, Sept. 20, 1926
New York Times, Sept. 24, 1926
New York Times, Oct. 3, 1926
Miami News, Oct 14. 1926

Tags: Hurricane history, Fort Lauderdale history, Miami history, American Red Cross history, FEMA, historical researcher, film researcher.

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