In light of the hurricane, I thought I would post Kate Fort Codington’s memoir of the 1926 Miami Hurricane, it had no other name. This is the storm the U. of Miami took as its mascot, so to speak.
Above the Storm
On Friday, September the 18th, I arrived in Miami with my family. Arthur had rented a charming house in Shenandoah, a residential section of red hibiscus, purple bougainvillea, and orange begonia blossoms. Grapefruit trees grew about the house and filled the vacant lot across the street. The fruit was nearly ripe and clustered in giant pendants, yellow-green, among settings of jade leaves. White curtains blew a greeting at the living room windows, a white apron enveloped the new maid, white clouds piled the rim of the horizon, and white sunlight flooded everything.
Life will be simpler here – thought I. I sat in the loggia listening to the wind through the coconut palm, like the clapping of little hands. I looked ahead into the years; I saw the children stretching up, brown and strong, their backs glistening from the bouyant water – always out with the wind and sky.
“Come,”Arthur interrupted my daydream, “don’t nap, let’s take a ride, plenty of time to unpack tomorrow. The maid understands the electric stove and will have dinner ready.”
We drove everywhere in the balmy brightness – to the indigo ocean which lay with the white foam of his long locks rippling across the sand. We watched the waves, coy in their entrancing loveliness, never whispering that the hour of their enchantment approached, and that soon they must rise as leviathans and dig themselves caverns in the beach. Little John took a stick… “I will spank Mr. Ocean,” he giggled, “He must learn to mind.”
We drove home at sundown. Clouds scudded the sky, the wind grew steady. “Do you know,” Arthur spoke casually, “a big storm is predicted tonight, a hurricane.” “Not really?” I questioned, “perhaps down here all winds are called hurricanes, it looks like rain to me.”
After the long first day we went to bed early. A window in our room refused to shut. Oh well, a new house, we would fix it tomorrow. The night deepened. The rain began. The wind became stern, sterner. “Arthur, get a hammer, the rain is drenching the bed.” There was no hammer. We strained at the sash as water flooded the room. Then the lights went off. “We’d better go downstairs,” grimaced Arthur as he struggled at the window, “I’ll lock the door, maybe it will keep the water from running down the steps.”
We met the children in the hall, all but baby Emily who slept in my arms. Their eyes were wide and frightened. “Mother, the house shakes, is it an earthquake?” We descended to the living room and lighted a candle. Outside – fury, wind, rain lashing the darkness. Water seeped in around the windows dripping from my room upstairs. “Oh, the poor landlord,” moaned the children, “his pretty tables and chairs, Mother, you don’t mind if we keep them mopped.”After a while the eyes of the workers grew heavy and I piled pillows on the floor. The walls trembled about us. The locked door upstairs rattled like a machine gun, and yet the family slept.
“Mother,” my two boys stood above me, “there’s a man out there. He’s been knocking a long time.” I rose wearily. Such stillness, such heaviness, perspiration stood on the faces of the children, still asleep. A tall spare man stood at the door. “Lady, I’m Joe Ludlam your neighbor. The electric wires are down, the wife and I have an oil stove— thought maybe you’d like to come to our place and cook your breakfast.”
“Such a storm,” I gasped, “Are you a stranger too?”
“…born here.” He stretched out his long mahogany arms. “Come on over when you get ready.” “I’ll take you in the car.” Arthur was suddenly beside me. “Then I’ll drive around and see the damage.”
The car, faced south in the porte cochere. I climbed to the back seat with a coffee percolator and a box of oatmeal. Arthur took the wheel. Then it happened – we had thought the storm was over — when with a hiss it was back upon us.
There were cries from the house as the hurricane unfurled from its treacherous lull and struck us with its fangs. THE CHILDREN! “Stick by the car, I must go in,”Arthur’s words sped by me. The wind threw him to the ground, then tore the screen door from his hands as he managed to scramble to the house. “Thank goodness,” I sighed to myself, he’s all right, the flashlight signaled that all was well.
There I sat. Shut tight in my ark of safety with the hurricane swirling around me. Its sound, a long shriek as of escaping steam, no gusts, no diminuendos – just that harsh, high, indomitable note – the mad unison of wind and rain. Later I tasted the rain, it was salty, a mixture of ocean and rainwater, blown three miles inland. The grapefruit, which had survived the night, avalanched about me. Trees blew over, every leaf from every twig shot by like a bullet, or hit the windshield with the sound of metal. I began to move. The car was backing from the porte cochere; instantly I was on my feet – my ark of safety – how did Noah’s wife feel when she was left alone to steer?
Inside Arthur was saying, “Mother’s all right, she’s leaning over, I guess she’s saying her prayers.” But I was not saying my prayers. I had felt full, physically depressed. But sudden terror cleared my mind and I realized that IF I let go of the brake, I would be killed. Thoughts of the family tore at my heart. As I looked behind me pieces of roof went whirring by, losing themselves in the semi-darkness, beating as blind birds against the iron lamp post. A large blue car, from next door, shot straight as an arrow across the street, crashing into the grapefruit trees. Again my car began to move chattering with its brakes like an old woman.”0 God, o God.” Yes, Mother was praying.
My help came from the fact that the wheels were turned and as the wind pushed it, the car backed in front of the house, cutting off the force of the wind. I opened and slammed the door and crawled to the porch. “Stick by the car.” I had stuck long enough.
A whoop of delight greeted me as I entered the living room – but such a room! Rain swept in furiously, and the house rocked like a three-legged stool. A high stone coping had protected the roof, but under the loosened bars of the steel awning-frames, all the east and south facing windows had caved in. The rest were broken by Arthur with his baseball bat, so that flying glass would not hit the children. The two davenports were pushed against the flapping southern door, and manned by Arthur, the two boys and little Mary, her blond hair messy with rain and worry. The faces of these volunteers were pale, but their eyes triumphant. In a corner crouched my two high school girls, Tallulah and Catherine, holding Baby Emily who kicked and tore at her dress. Her staccato screams could be heard above the storm. “If the house begins to go, Arthur,” my voice sounded far away. “Let us run to the grapefruit trees. We can hold on to the roots. The wind’s less dangerous than concrete blocks.” But the house did not go, and the storm grew no worse. I took off Emily’s dress, her nerves relaxed and she slept.
“Poor Mr. Hilburn, see how we’ve ruined his house, I mopped till the door busted in,” ten year old Artie grinned self-consciously. Little John mopped his face. “This old Hurricane’s a whopper, but he ain’t a-going to knock us down. Look at me hold this sofa.” Then I smiled. We all smiled. Soon we were shouting jokes at each other across the din.
We were experiencing the exhilaration of great danger. Little Emily had shed the only tears.
It was two o’clock in the afternoon before it was all over. Suddenly the quaking, rattling, roaring ceased. Light streamed palely over the sea of the living room, where overstuffed chairs huddled like stranded whales in sodden misery. Baby Emily lay curled in the one dry spot, just at the turn of the staircase. For a while we collapsed about her. It had been a bit hard – all in forty-eight hours – to travel a thousand miles, descend two thousand feet from mountains to seashore and, hampered by the depression of a low barometer, fight the enemy as we had fought.
“Mother, that same man’s at the door.” There he stood with his air of relaxed kindliness. “My wife’s cooked dinner,” he said. “We want you all to come over – oh, yes, all of you. We’ve got kids too and know that they can eat.” Food! Except to nibble occasionally on a loaf of bread, we had not thought of food since Arthur and I started out so cheerily with our breakfast in the car.
Sarah Ludlam, Joe’s wife, stood above the crowd, tall, straight, her hair straight and black, her face browned with forty years of Florida sun, her eyes jubilant. To me she will always typify the spirit above the storm. With water half way to her knees, she had cooked for her family of seven, our family of eight and the family of five next door. “We knew that we all would be a-needin’ this stove, so we saved it first.” Oh, that dinner! Fried eggs, potatoes, beans and coffee, that big pot of coffee! Our hosts moved among us, unpretentious and eager in their giving, wholesome as the saw palmetto of their Florida fields. “Take money for this dinner? Why sir, we are storm neighbors, this is no time to pay.”
We returned to our house, the water was two feet deep in the upstairs rooms. To save what plaster we could, the elder members of the family rolled up skirts and trousers and began to bale. My room was utter dilapidation – the furniture was paintless and the bedstead shot with glass.
“Poor Mr. Hilburn!”
What we did not yet know was that we were saving the house for ourselves – that a stern Florida lease would make us pay for such a wreck.
That night we slept at Arthur’s partner’s home. His wife Nancy came over with open arms, “Our house is built Georgia fashion, all boards and shingles and close to the ground.” I will never dream of marble halls again – leave them to the tourists. Sunday morning, after-a drive through the desecrated city, we returned to our gored windows and soaked trunks in Shenandoah.
Joe Ludlam had lost everything in the storm— the roof of his warehouse and all that was under it. “We must carry each other,” Sarah Ludlum spoke quietly. She baked bread for all her neighbors, “there ain’t a loaf in town.” Afraid of typhoid, we all had to use bottled water, even for the dishes.
Sarah had a sewing machine on her front porch. “Come over, neighbors and sew when you get a breathing spell. The church is a-calling for clothes. Women are sick and dying in the hospitals and the babies are naked. Women, our men need cars and the children need watching, let’s do our rescue work right here.” This we did. I made gowns and slips between dish washing and drying and cleaning the endless mass of clothes. The burden of apparel! Surely a bathing suit and a pair of pajamas were all any one would ever need again. But worse than the struggle with the clothes was the struggle with the debris about the place. Bushels of grapefruit added to the complexity of unidentified roofing and garbage cans. The heavy sun pressed on us as we worked.
Sarah Ludlam’s sewing machine was a real personality. It whirred constantly, accompanied by another sound – the artillery of hammers. The men did not wait a single day to start the roofs. No one had waited – that was the secret of rehabilitation. Sarah had cooked us dinner with her feet in the waters of the Hurricane. Bits of merriment floated about the machine.
“Susie Blake in Coconut Grove tied pillows on the heads of her children to keep the plaster from killing them.”
“Three boats came up in our yard. One stuck its head in the kitchen window. It was packed with brooms and coffee. We unloaded her and off she went.”
“Why, the water was five feet in our living room. Ma Warren was the only one who couldn’t swim so we tied her to the ironing board.”
It was on Sarah Ludlam’s porch that I heard of tragedies, of reclamation, of the generosity of the outside world.
Sarah and Joe were losing their home. “We can’t pay the interest any more, but friends will keep us, storm friends, and things will pick up. When I think of the drowned at Hialeah and Okeechobee, I know that Joe and me ain’t no harder hit than we can bear.” Only with death is grief. I looked at her face bending above the sewing machine, silhouetted against the quiet sunset. The storm was over. It had left its mark upon us all – upon many the mark of the cross which would linger long into new and more selfish days. Prosperity, even that, could never dim that mark from Sarah Ludlam’s soul.
The rattle of the hammers ceased. Sarah smiled and folded her work. A bird called shrilly. “Bless his heart, a catbird. The Hurricane didn’t blow that little fellow so far away after all.”
Above the Storm
Break the palms and twist the pine-tops From the sky.
Split the clouds.
Behold, Jehovah Passes by.
“No, sir,” said the man at the filling station, “I ain’t asking you more for gas. This ain’t the time to go up on prices. God knows what happened at the Beach.Them that tried the Causeway was swept in the Bay, and out at Hialeah the dead are floating around.” “Arthur,” I said, “let’s go home. I’ve seen enough.” It was Sunday morning, the day after the Hurricane – a day of glittering brightness. We had just driven the entire length of storm-rent Miami to Arthur’s office in the Buena Vista section. That the tarred roof of the building lay near us on the ground suddenly did not seem to matter. There was something sinister behind this devastation – the one- horror, death.
Slowly we picked our way back through the storm-shattered city.
Gaunt she lay, naked, torn. Her tall, slender buildings, emaciated through loss of glass and tile, reached like palsied fingers toward the sky.
Beneath a clutter, wreckage of land and sea, were the ruthless lacerations of flood and tempest. But this time I drove by with unseeing eyes – drove by ships huddling in the streets, by palms with their haughty plumes buried in the sand, by ragged holes in concrete walls from which protruded bathtubs and splintered bedsteads, look as though the city’s mouth had been pried open to show the cavities in her back teeth; drove by people who moved noiselessly, saying nothing, their eyes wide, their hands fluttering over little things – sweeping the drenched steps of a lopsided house, hanging muddy garments on an upturned tree, dazedly touching the motley rubbish that once had been a home.
Something to do – their hands must move until they can think themselves through this agony of ruined toys. Only with death is grief. “Out at Hialeah the dead are floating around.”