Lake Okeechobee Hurricane – September 16, 1928

This deadly hurricane with its 150 mph winds and wall of water caused the deaths of 2,500 in Florida and overall a death toll of 4,075.

The hurricane San Felipe Segundo, named after the saint’s day on which it did so much damage to Puerto Rico, but better known as the Okeechobee Hurricane, was the first recorded hurricane to reach category 5 status. It remains the only recorded hurricane to strike Puerto Rico at category 5 strength, and one of the ten most intense ever recorded to make landfall in the United States. In South Florida at least 2,500 were killed when storm surge from Lake Okeechobee breached the dike surrounding the lake, flooding an area covering hundreds of square miles. In total, the hurricane killed at least 4,075 people and caused around $100 million in damages. The Okeechobee Hurricane struck the Leeward Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas, before reaching Florida on September 16, 1928. In Guadeloupe, about 1,200 people were killed, and in Puerto Rico where the storm hit directly at peak strength, three hundred died and hundreds of thousands were left homeless.

The storm was first observed nine hundred miles to the east of Guadeloupe on September 10, by a ship, the most easterly report of a tropical cyclone ever received via ship radio. A ship in the Virgin Islands later reported the pressure of this storm as being at 27.50, a rare low value, and hence the identification of a very powerful storm. After leaving Puerto Rico, the hurricane moved across the Bahamas as a strong category 4 hurricane. It continued to the west-northwest, and made landfall in southern Florida on the evening of September 16 with winds in excess of 150 mph. The eye passed near West Palm Beach and then directly over Lake Okeechobee.

In September 1928, only about 50,000 persons lived in southern Florida. The land and real estate boom was already beginning to fade, although many subdivisions and new communities were still being built. The Great Hurricane of September 1926 had already sounded a loud alarm to the new residents about the vulnerability of their new homes. Lake Okeechobee is about seven hundred square miles in extent, making it the second-biggest body of fresh water that is entirely within U.S. borders. It is quite shallow and, prior to land reclamation around 1910 in the Everglades south of the lake, water drained out of it at its south end. A dike of packed soil, six feet high, was built around the south side of the lake to restrain water in times of heavy rainfall.

Draining the Everglades with a view to the development of farmland in it began around 1910, and migrant workers from the Caribbean along with local sharecroppers were employed to work the new land. Several new towns began to appear along the shores of the Lake. On September 16, as the storm approached, residents of these towns heard about it but did not pay much attention to what they heard. Once again, as had happened before, the Weather Bureau forecasters were convinced right up to the afternoon of the sixteenth that the storm was going to move northwards and avoid hitting Florida. Their warnings finally came too late for people to evacuate danger spots.

By September 16, Lake Okeechobee already had a high level of water due to heavy rains over the previous week. By the evening of that day, as the hurricane’s eye passed over the lake’s southeast corner, accompanied with 120 mph winds and a wall of water that had swept inland with it, the six-foot dike disintegrated and homes were crushed. Waves of debris carried everything before them. Some survived by hanging on to floating remains of homes, most drowned.

The aftermath was as difficult as the terror of the storm. Bodies in that hot climate had to be buried quickly but that was not easy in a place where the water table was so close to the surface. People said that they could not keep the coffins in the ground. But something had to be done with the 2,000 bodies that were there. Some were sent to West Palm Beach where a steam shovel dug a mass grave for the white victims. The bodies of hundreds of black farm workers were buried in a cemetery for blacks. Days later a much bigger grave was dug on higher, sandy soil for 1,000 victims, but still there were many more awaiting burial. They were finally burned in a mass cremation.

News of the disaster was slow to reach the outside world. The nearest city of any size to Lake Okeechobee was West Palm Beach, forty-five miles away, and it was busy coping with its own disaster. All communication lines had been severed. Newspapers across the country a couple of days later reported on the terrible tragedy of a storm that had hit Florida’s east coast, unaware of the much greater tragedy farther inland.

Migrant workers were not included in census records and there was a general callousness toward their welfare. No one seemed to care about the number of blacks who might have died. When the Red Cross reported that more than 2,000 blacks had lost their lives, state officials changed its total, fearing that such a large number might scare off visitors and endanger the tourist industry. The reality was that this was the second-worst hurricane disaster in the nation’s history up to that time, second only to the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. For years after 1928 farmers cultivating land south of the lake came across human skeletons.

The hurricane’s path turned northeast as it crossed Florida, taking it across northern Florida, eastern Georgia, and the Carolinas on September 19. It then moved inland and merged with a low-pressure system much farther north around Toronto, in Canada, by September 20. Everyone now knows the potential of Lake Okeechobee. Hence, in the three decades after the storm, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed a 150-mile dike around the lake. In places, the dike was forty-five feet high and 150 feet wide. Built out of mud, sand, grass, rock and concrete, and named after President Herbert Hoover, the dike has withstood a handful of hurricanes, though none as powerful as the 1928 storm.

In the event of a powerful hurricane, to take pressure off the dike, water can be pumped in large volume out of the lake through two wide canals into the sea. Many people have concluded that the site is safe no matter how powerful the next hurricane might be and they have built homes close to the lake. Farms and ranches have also appeared. The dike and the flood control structures have encouraged people to develop 700,000 acres of sugarcane and other market crops. The whole area is sometimes called the nation’s winter vegetable basket.

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