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Trouble in Paradise

By Les Standiford

City founder George E. Merrick tirelessly touted the advantages of the climate in Coral Gables, where, he said, it was “summer the whole year through.”  He even went so far as to proclaim “the lack of humidity” in his “City Beautiful,” quite a stretch for those who have braved many a brutal August in these parts.   In 1926, Merrick assured readers of a lengthy New York Times interview that “The lure of the tropics is a great and definite thing alone to build upon.  The Miami area comprises absolutely the only American tropics, and in that great fact, Miami owns and will forever hold a priceless American monopoly.”

One aspect of “tropical living” that Merrick failed to mention would nearly prove to be his undoing.  The summer season in Miami brings with it the threat of much more than humidity and clouds of bloodthirsty mosquitoes.  Lurking always in the background, from August through October, is the scourge called Hurricane.

On September 18, 1926, such a storm fell upon South Florida and Coral Gables with particular fury.  Though there had been reports out of the Caribbean that something bad was brewing as early as September 16, residents seemed unconcerned.  After all, a 100-mile-per-hour storm had delivered little more than a glancing blow to Miami in July, and word of this new storm produced little more than shrugs.

Shortly after midnight on September 18, however, the winds began to blow with a fury that had never been experienced in recent, local history.  By the time that speeds reached 128 miles per hour, the last of the wind gauges ripped away, and it is estimated that the storm did not peak until after speeds had exceeded 140 m.p.h., the threshold of a Category IV storm on contemporary scales.

Nearly every pane of glass in the newly opened Biltmore Hotel’s grand tower was blown out. Homes overlooking Biscayne Bay had been flattened into tinder. On October 9, the Red Cross reported 372 people had died in the storm and 6,000 were injured. Every downtown building in downtown Miami suffered significant damage, as did many buildings on Miami Beach.  “Miami Is Wiped Out,” was the gist of the headline, for newspapers across the nation.

Because of Merrick’s unyielding insistence on the highest quality building standards, Coral Gables fared relatively better than its nearby cousins.  Much of the fabled canopy of trees and the carefully tended landscaping was shredded, windows were blown out, and roofs were damaged, but most structures remained essentially intact.  Tallman Hospital survived, its 30-bed capacity swelled to 150 in the aftermath. The Coral Gables Golf and Country Club, along with the neighboring Biltmore Tower, held up well enough to serve as a shelter and soup kitchen, providing 2,000 meals a day for the city’s residents.  One of the storm’s principal casualties, however, was the half-completed “Old Main” building meant to anchor the fledgling University of Miami.  The palatial Mediterranean-styled structure was reduced to rubble—and while today an impressive University has grown up on those same grounds, not one vestige of the signature architectural style Merrick planned for the campus is to be found.