On the Great Storm of 1926, the Enduring Power of Opera, and One Italian News Report of the Event, Act I.


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As unforgettable as our experiences of hurricanes may be, the newspaper reports always to follow seem somehow “flat” and (despite the pure power of the event) heavily formulaic. Such accounts reliably blend the following ingredients together into one great repeating gray loop: (1) a range of statistics presuming to take the measure of a storm’s felt strength; (2) the sober recounting of a number of close encounters with disaster, and (3) an initial assessment of the damage and losses the bastard winds have claimed as their toll before finally moving along to torment the next hapless bowling pin of a place.

Somehow, even with all of that information, they still seem to miss the real story every time.

The Great Hurricane of 1926 was an unusual storm, in several respects. First, there was no reliable tracking technology then available, at all. As a result, people could ascertain with full confidence that an important storm was indeed moving in, only because it was HERE! The horror moved in stealthily in the early morning hours of Saturday, September 18, taking the sleeping metropolis by gut-wrenching surprise. Second, it hit the most populated areas of the city fairly dead on; and (to make matters worse) those making up said population were generally completely inexperienced with hurricane storms.

 

2Caption reads “Bay Shore Drive Fathoms Deep Beneath the Ocean, Miami Hurricane. The Drive runs from the center right up to background. Rowboat in center is directly above submerged Drive.”

Next, even though the bottom had finally fallen out on the City’s badly over-heated real estate “Boom” market the year before, Miami was still very much in the public eye, on a global level and somewhat larger-than-life, primarily because the City itself had laid down focused plans toward that goal, and proceeded to follow them faithfully. It would turn out that the Miami they’d thought the world was to see, was not the one finally shown, at all.

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A Contemporary Italian News Magazine.

All of which brings us to the colorful, contemporary “news account” of the event as reported in the Italian news magazine below, illustrating the imagined impact of the storm making landfall on Miami Beach. (Image provided by kind courtesy of the Wolfsonian Archives.) Though almost completely fictitious, it nevertheless has that certain “something” that the American newspapers have always so lacked. Quite often there is a truth in “story” sadly lacking in “fact,” because we *consume* fact as birds might seeds in their beaks, taking these two and leaving that one where it lies. Realizing that much is proffered as “fact” is not, we learn to question agenda, and veracity. We grow suspicious.

It’s somehow very different with stories. Stories, of all kinds, we live and breathe, often unawares. They, unlike “facts,” can inspire, guide, or complete us. We hunger for the right “Story,” because in its lack, there can be no meaning. And it is no extraordinary occurrence for people to perish for its lack. Not quite as quickly as if deprived of oxygen, but not too far behind, either.
Which is perhaps why we remain helpless to resist stories. True, we may reserve (and even fight for) the right to choose one story rather than another, but in the end we simply need a good, working story. Otherwise we have no “reason,” and we lack all direction, and motivation. Soon enough, we wither and die. So we will tend to swallow them whole, or even breathe them in unawares, like the very atmosphere It’s in our deepest nature, and there’s no real fighting it, or struggling to change the fact. Our only real choice, in this respect is to acknowledge the situation or live in denial.

And upon contemplation, this somewhat overwrought image from Italy points up a serious problem with the modern American journalistic approach. And it is this: in some important respects, we have been left completely “out of the story.” The idea occurs to me because, for all of its contrived drama, the Italian illustration is no joke, and (I’d suspect) was drawn in a compassionate rather than mocking spirit . The image might not capture at all how we look or actually behave in the pitch of a horrifying storm, but it sure as Hell hits dead-on, how we feel! And that is something of value, if we are. And I hold that we indeed are. Each of us, without exception and very much so.

Now, about these Italians. Does it not make perfect sense, when you stop to think about it, that the People and culture that first gave us opera, might well have an edge on spinning epic tales of cataclysmic destruction and (hopefully) redemption with the coming dawn, all the while keeping the human heart at its center?

In fact, for all we know, it may be that the assembled cast as shown is only apparently chaotic. Perhaps the scene is in truth carefully choreographed for maximum dramatic impact, and all are in their assigned places upon the stage, joined together even as they struggle in a great mad chorus that we cannot hear!

Who better than those of the culture that gave to us “Dante’s Inferno” might serve as the “Virgil” offering guidance as we find ourselves suddenly submerged into the seven circles of this howling, anarchic subtropical vision of Hell?

 

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“West Flagler St. after the hurricane    Miami, Fla. Sept. 18, 1926.”

Thank you.

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