The following excerpt is from the book Florida's Hurricane History, by Jay Barnes. Copyright 1998 The University of North Carolina Press. Reproduction in any form is prohibited without the express permission of the Press.
The Great Okeechobee Flood--in the telling of Florida's hurricane history, no other hurricane disaster can compare to its toll of at least 1,836 dead in Florida, as well as another 1,575 in the Caribbean. At the time of the catastrophe, many in South Florida said the actual death count there was over 2,300; some said it may have been as high as 3,500. Whichever figure is correct, it ranks among the United States' worst natural disasters; only the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 (over 8,000), the Johnstown flood of 1889 (2,200), and the two hurricanes of 1893 (2,000 each) are likely to have caused more deaths on American soil. It arrived on the coast near Palm Beach on the night of September 16, 1928, just two years after the Great Miami Hurricane, and like its predecessor, it cast its most sinister blow on those who lived on the southern edges of Lake Okeechobee.
It began in the far eastern Atlantic, near the Cape Verde Islands, where it was first reported by the crew of the SS Commack at latitude 17 degrees north and longitude 48 degrees west. At the time, this was the most easterly radio report regarding a hurricane in the Atlantic ever received. The storm undoubtedly developed significant strength well before it reached its first target--the island of Guadeloupe. The eye of the storm crossed there at noon on September 12, with a barometric low of 27.76 inches. Guadeloupe, St. Kitts, and Montserrat were devastated. By the morning of the next day, the hurricane was southwest of St. Croix, where the SS Matura recorded a low pressure of 27.50 inches. After delivering significant destruction to the Virgin Islands, it crossed Puerto Rico on Thursday, the thirteenth, the Day of San Felipe. The blast to Puerto Rico was incredible; according to Tannehill in Hurricanes: Their Nature and History, "Wind there was the highest, rainfall the heaviest, and destruction the greatest of record in recent years." At least 300 lives were lost, and many more died in the following weeks due to starvation and disease. Damages in Puerto Rico were estimated at $50 million, and over 200,000 people were left homeless. Because of its horrible consequences on this date, the September 1928 hurricane is often referred to as "San Felipe."
The greatness of the tragedy in Puerto Rico slowly made the news in the United States, just about the time Florida residents were receiving their first warnings of the powerful storm offshore. On September 15, it swept through the Bahama Islands, dashing away anemometer cups before they could record the highest winds. Residents along the Florida coast did what they could to prepare; some secured their homes, and others fled. In the early hours of the sixteenth, San Felipe was poised 200 miles south east of Miami, and already this large and powerful storm was being felt along the coast, which was battered by gale-force winds and rolling surf.
By nightfall the hurricane made its lunge over the Florida coast near West Palm Beach. Experiencing the awesome power one would expect from a category 4 storm, Palm Beach County was rocked by a large tidal surge and winds estimated at over 150 mph. A minimum barometer reading of 27.43 inches was taken at 7:00 p.m., which fell just short of establishing a new record low for the United States (a reading of 27.37 inches had been measured in 1919). West Palm Beach recorded a total of 18.42 inches of ra in during the week of the storm, over 10 inches of which fell as the hurricane passed through. Witnesses reported that the "lull" lasted about forty minutes, and the storm was moving at a forward speed of about 14 mph.
Up the coast at Jupiter, many residents, both black and white, took refuge in the schoolhouse, which weathered the storm much better than did their homes. One cement-block house collapsed during the storm, crushing several members of a family--the only reported deaths in Jupiter. The Jupiter Lighthouse, the red brick sentinel that had witnessed many storms, was said to have swayed a remarkable seventeen inches "as mortar squeezed from between bricks like toothpaste." Prior to the hurricane, the light had been converted from oil burners to electricity. As the storm reached the coast, all power lines were downed, and the lighthouse auxiliary generator failed to work. Captain Seabrook, the keeper, refused to let the light go out and scrambled to reinstall the old oil burners. Without electricity, the light's mantle had to be turned by hand, and Seabrook, who was suffering from blood poisoning at the time, was prepared to push the apparatus around all night. His son Franklin, noticing the bright red streaks on his father's arm, stepped in to work the mantle, continuing to near exhaustion. As a result, the light shone through one of the century's most dreadful storms, and later the younger Seabrook was officially commended for his heroism.
All along the coast, piers, docks, and waterfront structures were lifted by the tide and carried for hundreds of yards. In some instances, houses were raised from their foundations and spun ninety degrees, their porches and stairs twisted into tangled arrangements. Trees were knocked down on virtually every street, wrapped in webs of electric cables. Throughout the area, the problems faced by the storm survivors were similar to those endured by survivors of the Miami hurricane--they lacked food and water, thousands of homeless were in need of shelter, and they suffered the emotional wounds of having to cope with disaster. At least twenty-six lives were lost on the coast.
On Tuesday morning, September 18, thirty-six hours after the hurricane's arrival, headlines around the nation summarized the calamity: "Florida Destroyed! Florida Destroyed!" The initial news of the disaster at West Palm Beach was just beginning to emerge when a far more ominous catastrophe was discovered--the mind-boggling massacre on the edges of Lake Okeechobee.
By noon on the day of the storm, many of the people around the lake had heard of the approaching cyclone. In South Bay several men took the initiative to drive the maze of roads around the lake to spread the news and to urge people to seek shelter. Many women and children gathered on a large barge anchored in the lake. But as the afternoon progressed and the great storm grew nearer, hundreds of families, landowners, and laborers went about their work on the broad, flat terrain with no idea of what was about to occur.
Normally, the water level in the lake was maintained slightly above the level of the land so that water could be drained off as needed. In the weeks before the storm, heavy rains had kept the lake level high and filled the ditches and canals around the glades. By September 10, the lake level had risen three feet in thirty days, and the ten or more inches of rain that fell during the storm added to the burden. But it was the intense hurricane winds, estimated at over 150 mph at Canal Point, that lifted the waters of Lake Okeechobee and tossed them southward, completely washing away entire communities and the dikes that were supposed to protect them. According to some reports, the waters rose from four to six feet in the first hour of the storm, and still-water marks in some buildings were almost eight feet above the ground. Few were able to survive this incredible wall of water. In the darkness of the next few hours, Florida experienced its greatest recorded tragedy.
A detailed and vivid account of these events is chronicled in Lawrence E. Will's book, Okeechobee Hurricane and the Hoover Dike. In it, Will relives the storm and writes of the great irony of the disaster: "This calamity occurred within a few miles of a large city and of a world famous resort, yet so isolated was the location that not until three days later did the state's own governor learn of its enormity. So extended and so difficult was the terrain that after six weeks the search for bodies was discontinued with many still unrecovered."
As the storm moved on and the sun emerged the following day, few relief agencies rushed to the aid of the survivors at Okeechobee. In fact, most attention was first placed on the destruction along the coast. Soon, however, word spread of a great disaster, the scope of which it would take many days to realize. Dead bodies were scattered everywhere, decomposing in the Florida sun with each passing day. Many of those who had managed to survive had been swept for miles into the saw grass and were forced to walk or wade back to whatever recognizable roadway they could find. Some, too weak or injured to stand or walk, sat for days in hopes of being spotted by passersby. Some who survived the storm are believed to have perished later as they wandered the vast Everglades.
Several unusual events were reported in the aftermath of the storm. Arthur Stokes, a black worker arrested for murder before the hurricane, had to be released at his trial because the only witnesses had drowned in the storm. Similarly, the storm clarified the whereabouts of Deputy State Hotel Commissioner Pat Houston, who was believed to have absconded with a considerable sum of the state's money because of his long absence. It was reported that Houston's good name was returned when his body was found near Pahokee. Governor Martin said that the body of one of the storm victims, C. L. Reddick, was found five days after the flood, still guarded by the man's trusted dog. One local man, emotionally numbed by the calamity, worked long hours in search of bodies, even though he himself had twice been bitten by a water moccasin. Perhaps most amazing of all, an eighty-three-year-old woman from Belle Glade was found alive in a steel washtub on September 20, four days after the storm.
Unfortunately, because of the bad publicity Florida had received after the 1926 storm and the economic bust that followed, some officials at first downplayed the disaster at Okeechobee. But word of the tragedy soon spread, and more relief poured in. The Red Cross was well prepared for the storm's aftermath, having gained valuable experience during the Miami hurricane and the flood at Moore Haven. Local volunteer chapters went to work as soon as news of the storm's impact in Puerto Rico was known. Well before the hurricane struck Florida, the Red Cross had dispatched six experienced relief workers to the state. After the storm hit, while the American Legion was busy with rescue efforts and the search for bodies, the Red Cross set up twenty-two emergency feeding centers. Soon thousands of refugees had access to food, clothing, and shelter. The people of the glades were in particular need of clothing, as the swirling floodwaters had left many of the survivors nearly naked.
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