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90th Anniversary of Florida’s Deadliest Hurricane

90th Anniversary of Florida's Deadliest Hurricane

[Belle Glade and Everglades after the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane. From NWS Miami]

Ninety years ago this week, on September 16, 1928 the deadliest hurricane in Florida’s history struck West Palm Beach.  As it moved inland it drove the waters of Lake Okeechobee against the mud levees on its shores.  When the levees failed, a surge inundated the communities of Okeechobee City, South Bay and Belle Glade, causing thousands of deaths. The storm is known as the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane.

In September 1928, only about 50,000 persons lived in South Florida. The land and real estate boom was already beginning to fade, although many subdivisions and new communities were still being built. The devastating Great Miami Hurricane of September, 1926, had already sounded a loud alarm to the new residents about the vulnerability of their new homes to tropical cyclones. However, most of the damage from that storm was in Dade and Broward counties. Even so, a bellwether of what was to come occurred with the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 as flood waters from Lake Okeechobee were swept by that storm into Moore Haven, the county seat of Glades County, killing over 100 people.

The City of Palm Beach, founded only 34 years earlier by Henry Flagler, was incorporated in 1911 and had become a playground for the rich and famous, while West Palm Beach grew up on the opposite side of Lake Worth as a place where the support staff lived. The Atlantic breezes were balmy and the climate was warm. On the opposite side of the county, a quite different situation was emerging. The rich, black muck soil near Lake Okeechobee was already being utilized for its tremendous agricultural productivity. The newly incorporated town of Belle Glade near the lake was growing steadily, fueled by the rapidly expanding agriculture in fields nearby. A rural, agrarian society, dependent on migrant labor, was plowing and harvesting along the shores of the lake behind a hastily built muck levee.

90th Anniversary of Florida's Deadliest Hurricane

[Track of 1928 hurricane through the Leeward Islands. From NOAA]

The storm began as a disturbance near the Cape Verde Islands in early September.  It was tracked across the Atlantic and by Sept. 12th it struck the Leeward Islands.  The amount of warning time varied by island, but Guadeloupe apparently received no advanced warning and the unprepared island suffered 1200 deaths. The total for other nearby islands where the warnings were better was less than fifty.

The hurricane ramped up its intensity as it approached Puerto Rico.  It struck the next day with estimated winds of 200 mph (320 km/hr).  In contemporary terms, that’s Category 5 level destruction.  Tens of thousands of homes were destroyed and the island’s coffee industry received a blow from which it never recovered.  Leaving 312 people dead, it became known on the island as the San Felipe Segundo hurricane. It was the second memorable hurricane to hit Puerto Rico on San Felipe’s feast day (the first was in 1876). More than 300 persons were killed by the storm in Puerto Rico.

90th Anniversary of Florida's Deadliest Hurricane

[Hurricane winds drive a 10-foot 2X4 through a palm tree in Puerto Rico. From September 13, 1928. From NOAA]

The storm continued its relentless track through the Turks and Caicos and Bahama Islands.  There was massive destruction but due to adequate warnings the casualties were low.

Richard Gray, MIC in Miami thought the storm would recurve and not strike south Florida, but warnings were issued from Miami to Titusville.  Disruption of communications made tracking the center of the storm difficult, so it came as a surprise on the evening of Sept. 16th when the eye passed over West Palm Beach.

90th Anniversary of Florida's Deadliest Hurricane

[Map analysis of San Fillipe Segundo hurricane striking Puerto Rico. From NOAA]

Damage in coastal Palm Beach County was severe especially in the Jupiter area where the eye wall of the hurricane persisted longer than at any other location because of where the storm crossed the coast. A storm surge around 10 feet with waves likely as high as 20 feet crashed into the barrier islands including Palm Beach.

90th Anniversary of Florida's Deadliest Hurricane

[Damage from near West Palm Beach. From NWS Miami]

However, the greatest loss of life was around Lake Okeechobee. As the category 4 hurricane moved inland, the strong winds piled the water up at the south end of the lake, ultimately topping the levee and rushing out onto the fertile land. Thousands of people, mostly migrant farm workers, drowned as water several feet deep spread over an area approximately 6 miles deep and 75 miles long around the south end of the lake.

90th Anniversary of Florida's Deadliest Hurricane

[Approximate location of the eye of the 1928 hurricane As it swept water out of Lake Okeechobee and over the towns of Belle Glade, Chosen, Pahokee, South Bay, and Bean City. More than 2,500 people drowned. From NWS Miami]

As it traveled over the Lake, the winds shifted from northerly to southerly.  This sloshed the waters of the shallow lake first against the southern dikes then across to the northern ones.  The meager dried-mud dikes failed on both sides, causing a flash floods that caught people huddled in their homes unable to escape.

Eventually, the hurricane did recurve over western Florida.  It then tracked northeastward over coastal northern Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina dumping tropical rains along the way.

90th Anniversary of Florida's Deadliest Hurricane

[Extent of flooding, marked in blue, caused by Lake Okeechobee hurricane (NOAA/NWS Miami)]

Of course, the effect of the flood was devastating, and the loss of life, both human and animal, was apocalyptic. Damages from this hurricane were estimated around 25 million dollars which, normalized for population, wealth, and inflation, would be around 16 billion dollars today (Landsea, 2002). The horrible flood in the towns of Pahokee, Canal Point, Chosen, Belle Glade, and South Bay resulted in the drownings of many people, probably three quarters or more of whom were field workers. The flood waters lasted for several weeks, and survivors were found wandering as late as September 22.

90th Anniversary of Florida's Deadliest Hurricane

[Belle Glade memorial to Lake Okeechobee hurricane victims. (Neal Dorst)]

The death toll in the Lake Okeechobee region from the storm was in the thousands.  Public health concerns and persistent flood waters out weighed the need for accounting for all the dead, and the bodies were disposed of in either mass graves or burnt on huge pyres.  The Red Cross estimate of 1,836 dead stood for a long while, but recent re-evaluations put the total in excess of 2,500. The tragedy led to the construction of the Hoover Dike around the Lake and the formation of the Okeechobee Flood Control District, to oversee flood control measures in the area.

Information from NOAA HRD and NWS Miami

Edited for WeatherNation by Meteorologist Mace Michaels

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