The devastating flooding in the Carolinas due to the huge hurricane reminded me of Florida’s most dramatic flooding crisis. It may seem strange to some of you since Florida is so flat and its rivers seem to flow slowly.
Ninety years ago in September of 1928, a Category 5 hurricane came eastward over Palm Beach County and flooded the southern half of Lake Okeechobee with a twenty-foot tsunami that killed over 2,000 people. It was the most violent natural disaster in the history of the state.
Much like the controversy over the number of deaths caused by last year’s Puerto Rican hurricane, since a majority of the deaths were immigrant workers from the Deep South and some from the Bahamas, no one can be totally sure on the death count. Bodies were sent southward miles into the alligator-invested waters of the Everglades.
The hurricane called by Floridians Okeechobee hurricane, also known as the San Felipe Segundo hurricane, formed September 6, 1928, off the coast of Africa. Moving westward, it hit Guadaloupe on September 12 with Category 4 winds and a storm surge that caused 1,200 deaths on the island.
By September 13 it was a Category 5 with sustained wind of 160 mph as it crashed into Puerto Rico. 312 people were killed, the vegetation destroyed, and 500,000 people were left homeless. People in Florida sounded the alarm.
But as San Felipe Segundo arrived in the Bahamas, it had weakened somewhat to a Category 4 and the damages in the Bahamas was less with just 18 fatalities.
On September 16 it seemed the storm was heading north along the Atlantic Coast which would mean the western side of the storm might get less rain and wind. It should be noted that in 1928 there wasn’t today’s radar nor cell-phones nor even a decent radio station to communicate into the Florida interior, the Muck Bowl.
There was no escape from the huge wave.
Suddenly at night when many in rural areas had gone to be, the storm moved westward hitting West Palm Beach with 145 mph winds. 1,711 homes were crushed.
But there were worse things to come. Hurricane winds move counter-clockwise and as the hurricane moved to Lake Okeechobee, the huge winds blew the waters in the shallow 25 mile by 25 mile lake from the southern end of the lake to the deeper north end. Suddenly boats were sitting in the muck and the best roads for escape headed eastward into a wind that could blow a horse cart into a canal.
Faceless People in the Swamp
Most of the farm workers lived in crude wooden house on stilts to avoid gators and snakes. As the storm passed a giant tsunami wave rushed southward and swept away the cities of Belle Glade, Canal Point, Chosen, Pahokee, and South Bay, Florida. Only a few commercial buildings survived. The wave could have been thirty feet high.
Hundreds of square miles in the swamps south of the Lake were filled with floating bodies that would quickly decay or be eaten by swamp things. Only mass graves could handle the hundreds of unknown corpses.
The Lake Is So Wide It Looks Like An Ocean
The Hoover Dike, Florida’s largest WPA Project, was built around Lake Okeechobee to prevent future disasters, but it also meant interfering with the flow of fresh water into the Everglades to the south. The Great Wall of Florida is the first man-made site astronauts see as they return to Florida from space.