Okeechobee – 1928

San Felipe’s Hurricane

The hurricane grounded first in Puerto Rico on September 13, feast day of San Felipe, killing 1,000 people. Along the Florida coast, everyone battened down as the storm gathered force. Or September 16, it crashed into Palm Beach with winds driving solid sheets of water at 200 k\ (125 mph), smashing building boats and businesses, while most people had retreated to safe shelters. Unusually, hit tin; land did little to diminish the storm. Forty miles inland it actually gained strength for short periods, probing isolated farming communities for weak buildings it could tear apart. As it howled around the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee the hurricane reached a crescendo. For over five hours it beat the shallow waters into waves that pounded the 1.5 m (5 ft) defensive mud dykes. Suddenly, at Belle Glade, the dyke collapsed, and a wall of water surged through the breach, inundating every village from Clewiston to Canal Point.

An hour after the dyke broke the flood reached its peak of 3.8 m (12 ft). Swirling winds gusted up to 240 kph (150 mph), ripping up trees which became battering rams in the surging water. Death was a lottery, plucking six from a family of 18 clinging to the roof of their splintered farm as it surfed crazily, cannoning into chunks of tangled debris. Of 63 people huddled in another building, thought to be the strongest in the area, only seven survived after it, too, was wrenched from its foundations. One third of the 6,000 souls in the communities to the south of Lake Okeechobee were killed.

For survivors, the clear-up was a further disaster. You can’t bury people in the Everglades. Coffins float on the ooze. In the heat and humidity ‘bodies were stacked like cordwood’ and burned, unidentified, in mass graves on firm ground miles away.

When did the San Felipe’s Hurricane happen: September 16 1928

Where did the San Felipe’s Hurricane happen: Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades, Florida, USA

What was the San Felipe’s Hurricane death toll: Officially 1,836 people died around Lake Okeechobee, but a separate mass burial of black farm workers numbered hundreds more. The true figure is probably around 2,500, not including further deaths in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. The hurricane changed the Everglades permanently, because US Army Engineers rebuilt the Okeechobee dyke up to 15 m (45 ft) high – and it became the first in a series of flood control defenses that has tamed the Everglades ever since.

You should know. Despite being one of the deadliest storms in US history, it has no official name (like ‘Galveston’ or ‘Katrina’). It is difficult not to speculate that this is because the people – white or black – whose lives were devastated were exclusively poor At the time, the big news story was ‘how well’ Palm Beach had come through the hurricane.


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