How Miami Survived the Great Pandemic of 1918

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By: Jorge Damian De La Paz

In 1918, the city of Miami wrestled with one of the deadliest pandemics in history. “A cloud of depression settled down upon our little city,” a resident later recalled, “and when friends met together, all the talk was of those we knew who we are sick, dead, or dying.”

In one month alone, more than 400 Miamians were infected and at least 70 died.

How did a 22-year-old Miami contain the great flu pandemic?

Miami’s health officials responded immediately to the 1918 influenza pandemic with several containment measures. Local authorities closed all schools, churches, and theaters within five days of the first reported deaths in the city. As the virus spread across Miami, the city stopped landlords from evicting sick tenants, banned public gatherings, and urged people to stay home. The mayor eventually ordered all downtown businesses to close by 4PM to (1) reduce crowds and (2) because “flu germs” were thought to be less powerful in the sunshine.

Residents and civic groups mobilized to treat the infected and contain the spread of the disease. Under conditions of near panic, Trinity Church delivered food to the homes of the sick, and a community nursery was opened to provide free childcare to affected families. At one point, almost all the nurses at the newly opened Miami City Hospital, now known as Jackson Health System, were infected with the virus. To ease the overwhelmed healthcare system, residents volunteered as caregivers and emergency drivers—a grocery truck was even used as a makeshift ambulance.

 

Like today, the 1918 pandemic had a disproportionate impact on black Miami. Dana A. Dorsey, Miami’s first black millionaire, converted his hotel in Overtown into a temporary hospital to serve black residents excluded from healthcare resources due to segregation. As a result of advocacy by the black community, the city hired a black physician, Dr. Thomas Lowrie, to oversee the hospital, a first in Jim Crow-era Miami.

Local newspapers kept the public informed of the latest emergency orders, listed needed supplies, and warned against panic or rumor. Just over a century ago, the Miami Herald railed against residents that failed to maintain social distancing precautions: “no one has the right to place others in danger and the coughing, sneezing person is doing that thing unless he is at home.” “The eradication of the influenza…is as much a private affair as a public duty,” argued the Herald’s editorial board. 

In short, Miami’s entire civic infrastructure collectively responded to the threat, from public officials and healthcare workers to residents, community groups, and local media. Historian Mike Wallace recently recounted how New York City met the 1918 pandemic and its potential lessons for today. “We live in a different historical moment,” he writes, “but it’s worth remembering the alacrity with which the city’s civil and political society rallied to grapple with a deadly menace.”

Miami should, too.

Jorge Damian de la Paz is an urban planning and policy researcher. 

Twitter: @jddelapaz_