Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Storm Warning: Hurricanes and How They Changed Florida

In 1928, a hurricane overflowed Lake Okeechobee and drowned perhaps 3,000 people. Chances are you never heard of it.

At the time, Florida was a backwater of about 1.3 million people—fewer people than now are in Palm Beach County. Also, most of the storm’s victims were migrant workers who, in the Jim Crow era, were invisible. And a year after the storm, a stock market crash would send America into the Great Depression. So this momentous disaster faded from memory.

But the Okeechobee hurricane, and the great storms that have pummeled the state, offer important lessons for Floridians. And we are woefully overdue.

Starting with the 2006 season, hurricanes increasingly came closer to South Florida, and people felt their effects. Only two, Matthew in 2016 and Irma in 2017, came within 60 miles. In all that time, none made landfall.


Will a hurricane strike your home? Are the odds nine in 10, or one in 10? In a way, they are 50-50. So just as you wear seatbelts in the off chance you’ll get in a wreck, you prepare in the off chance a storm will wreck your home and maybe put you or a loved one in the hospital. Or worse.

If you have forgotten what that can mean, here is a look at great storms in South Florida since 1900. And keep this in mind: Three of them struck just nine years apart (1926, 1928, 1935), and within 180 miles of each other. Did you think the gods of the tropics spread out both the timing and location of storms, in the interest of fair play? They don’t.


Damage to the Miami Casino in 1926

In the fall of 1926, the University of Miami was preparing to open its doors. On the morning of Sept. 16, George Merrick, the man who’d built Coral Gables, dropped into the mail 2,000 letters announcing his winter season. The previous day, the Miami Herald had reported a hurricane was somewhere out in the Caribbean but was not expected to hit Florida.

Late on Sept. 17, warnings were posted. By midnight, the storm was roaring through downtown Miami with winds believed to top 150 miles an hour.

Weather historians have said they believe that if a storm today followed the path of the 1926 hurricane, the damage, in dollars, would be at least three times that of 1992’s catastrophic Hurricane Andrew.

Destroyed ships in Miami, 1926

At dawn, residents ran out in the calm, believing the storm had passed. But it was just the eye. The second half would be worse. Many were trapped.

Just in Miami, the storm killed 113 people and, for now, the city’s dreams of glory. The Florida East Coast Railroad offered free passage for anyone who wanted to get out. Many did. The world now knew about Florida and hurricanes, and newspapers declared Miami dead and buried.

The storm also hit Moore Haven, on the southwest side of Lake Okeechobee. Some 300 are believed to have died when a flimsy six-foot dike crumbled and water poured out of the lake. Leaders started wondering if they needed a bigger, better dike. They still were discussing it two years later.


The storm that sent a wall of water out of Lake Okeechobee in 1928 might well be the most under-reported disaster in U.S. history. And a field near downtown West Palm Beach might be the nation’s most disrespected historic site.

Just after the storm, authorities set the official death toll at 1,836, but admitted it likely was low. The volume of death was so staggering to the pioneer region that after a while, people had just stopped counting.

Map of Lake Okeechobee hurricane damage, 1928

In 2003, for the storm’s 75th anniversary, the National Hurricane Center set the number at 2,500; not because of any new evidence, but rather as an acknowledgement that 1,836 was wrong. Some estimates place the total at 3,000, which would rank the storm second only to the 8,000-plus believed killed in the 1900 Galveston, Texas, hurricane.

And for those who see history in the abstract, the storm is the reason a giant dome of rock and gravel surrounds one of the world’s largest inland lakes.

Florida Gov. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, for whom Broward County is named, had been elected in 1904 on a promise to drain the Everglades, exposing the world’s richest farming soil. Even then, some decried it as one of the world’s great ecological disasters.

The state invited farmers in. But the 700-plus-square-mile Lake Okeechobee is no more than 21 feet deep anywhere. It sloshes easily in storms. Farmers soon complained the lake flooded their crops. So, a 47-mile-long, 5-foot berm was constructed out of muck and clay at the lake’s south end. Surely, officials assured everyone, that would hold the giant lake.

In September 1928, a storm tore through the Caribbean. Forecasters insisted it would not hit Florida. On Saturday night, Sept. 15, they allowed as how yes, perhaps it would.

Sunday started clear and sunny in West Palm Beach. By mid-morning, winds had picked up. The storm brought a huge tidal surge and winds estimated at 160 miles an hour; all gauges had been blown away early on. Coastal Palm Beach County reported damages in the millions.

Belle Glade after the 1928 storm

At the big lake, people heard radio reports from West Palm Beach that the storm was headed inland. With no roads yet built to the west or south, residents had only two escape routes: north into the teeth of the winds or east to the coast. And that presumed you had a car. That was a luxury in 1928, especially in this dirt-poor region. So many stayed.

After dark, the storm arrived in the interior. “It woke up old Okechobee (sic) and the monster began to roll in his bed,’’ Zora Neale Hurston wrote in the 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Because of the storm’s clockwise spiral, winds came from the north, bringing the lake’s millions of gallons of water to towns along the southeast shore. Most of those killed had nowhere to run when the waters surged.

The countryside stank with death. The area was quarantined. Volunteers pulled victims from the muck. Black people were conscripted to clean up wreckage or collect bodies, moving as many victims as they could for burial. Others, including those of animals, were gathered into piles, covered with lime, and burned.

Officials loaded 69 white victims onto a barge and sent it down the canal to West Palm Beach. Those people were buried in the city’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

But 674 Black victims were placed in a mass grave in a field in a Black neighborhood of West Palm Beach. They were dumped without identification, and relatives never would know for sure if their loved ones were in there.

For three-fourths of a century, no marker noted the fact that so many lay under the heavily traveled streets of a bustling city. At one point, a street was rerouted and actually went over part of the grave. Just before the 75th anniversary in 2003, the city of West Palm Beach bought the property and built a memorial at the site.

And so the greatest loss of life in a Florida hurricane came not from winds knocking down buildings, or the sea surging ashore, but from freshwater flooding. In storm after storm, scientists will say, it’s not the wind. It’s the water, the water, the water.


Train swept off the tracks, Monroe County 1935 hurricane

By the mid-1930s, Florida’s brief and wild real estate boom had collapsed. The Great Depression was full on across the state and the nation. One last catastrophe would send Florida deep into it.

In his long life, Henry Flagler had helped make Standard Oil and had carved South Florida out of the jungle. His wish list contained one last item: a 128-mile-long railroad from the mainland to the isolated island of Key West.

It was, at the time, one of America’s largest privately financed engineering projects. It cost Flagler two-fifths of his total Florida investment: $20 million. That’s more than $500 million in today’s dollars. Detractors called it “Flagler’s Folly.” But after seven years of work by 3,000 to 4,000 men, on a glorious day in January 1912, a stooped Flagler made a triumphant appearance in Key West. Sixteen months later, he’d be dead at 83. His wonder would last but a few decades.

In the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt set up Civilian Conservation Corps camps. In Florida, more than 700 World War I veterans who’d felt neglected by their nation were put to work building new bridges and causeways down the Keys, alongside the railroad, to accommodate the next big thing: the car.

In early September 1935, word came that a storm was coming. With no road yet through the Keys, a rescue train was dispatched. It being Labor Day weekend, the railroad had trouble getting crews and fuel and was delayed by various mishaps. As it approached Islamorada, it overran its planned stopping point in the blinding rain and winds and had to back up. Workers got only five minutes to try to board. Then a 20-foot wave washed over them.

The storm killed at least 577 people. At least 288 of the dead were those Civilian Conservation Corps highway workers. Some bodies never were found.

Also dead was Mr. Flagler’s railroad, much of it washed away. Too many rail beds were too damaged to salvage. Instead, work proceeded apace to complete the Overseas Highway. Few people had the heart to rebuild the now nearly obsolete railroad, and no one ever did.

ANDREW: AUG. 24, 1992

The aftermath of Andrew at Country Walk; photo credit: SENTINEL/ZUMAPRESS.COM

Until the next big one comes along—and it will—all storms will be judged against this monster that slammed one of America’s largest metropolitan areas. Never before had a storm this powerful attacked so many people.

Initial estimates placed gusts at more than 175 miles an hour and sustained winds at 145 miles an hour. In 2002, on the storm’s 10th anniversary, the National Hurricane Center retroactively upped sustained winds to 165 miles an hour, and Andrew now is one of only four storms on record to have struck North America at the top-end Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale. (Labor Day, 1935; Camille, 1969; Andrew, 1992; Michael, 2018.)

But in South Florida, Andrew killed only 15 directly and 28 indirectly. Why so few? Because it did not bring dramatic rainfall, surface flooding or storm surge. Just a lot of wind. From which you can brace yourself. That wasn’t the case in 1928.

And while incredibly powerful, it was compact, and did its worst in a lesser-populated area south of Miami proper. And like many storms, it was inconsistent; it bent fences in the Boca Raton area, 80 miles north of its Homestead landfall, but had nearly no effects in Key Largo, only about 25 miles south.

Andrew did cause $15.5 billion in damage—nearly $30 billion in today’s dollars—making it the costliest disaster in U.S. history until surpassed by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Andrew did take the wind, so to speak, out of annual predictions that seem to lead newscasts every spring. People have come to believe a prediction of an above-average year means a storm definitely will hit them, and a below-average prediction means it won’t. Again, the tropics don’t work that way.

The 2020 season was the busiest on record, with a staggering 30 named storms of at least tropical storm strength. Only two officially went through South Florida, and with little effect. (Sally became a tropical storm over the western Everglades, and Tropical Storm Eta passed through the Middle Keys).

By comparison, the 1992 season was one of the quietest. It generated only six named storms, and didn’t spawn its first one until 77 days in. That was the “A” storm: Andrew. It’s a cliché, but of value: It takes only one.

The iconic photo of Gary Davis holding his dog Boo Boo after his home at Goldcoaster Mobile Home Park was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew; photo credit: LANNIS WATERS/THE PALM BEACH POST VIA ZUMA WIRE

And people often presume an approaching storm will give them plenty of time to prepare or flee. Four days before Andrew struck, it was a “disorganized system” threatening to dissipate. On Saturday morning, it had grown overnight into a monster. The time from issuance of hurricane warning Sunday to landfall early Monday was 21 hours.

After Andrew, the state spent millions in tax money in recovery efforts. Many people left the wreckage of southern Miami-Dade County for other parts of the state and nation. Insurers went broke paying claims. Policies’ rates now are almost prohibitive—where you can get them.

But Florida also realized that what had been significant about the decades before Andrew was not the storms that hit but the ones that didn’t. Between 1944 and 1950, the Florida peninsula was hit by a major storm, of Category 3 or higher, an astonishing seven times. In the next half century, it got just three. And in that half century, Florida’s population went from 2 million to 15 million. Hurricanes mostly were out of sight and out of mind. People built a lot of houses in a lot of places they shouldn’t have. Like the beach. And in low-lying swamps. And in places without adequate flood drainage. And built below standards. And maybe paid people to look the other way while they did it. Tougher building codes remain a legacy of Andrew.


Alex Norton after her childhood home was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in Pensacola; photo credit: THE PALM BEACH POST VIA ZUMA WIRE

Any list of hurricanes since 1900 must include what wasn’t a single storm, but rather an unprecedented stretch of them. They just kept coming.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (1999-2007) liked to tell people he was the only sitting governor to have gone through a Category 5 storm: Andrew in 1992. It was good preparation. In a 14-month span during the 2004 an 2005 hurricane seasons, Bush would preside over an astonishing twelve Florida landfalls: four tropical storms and eight hurricanes.

Four of the hurricanes—Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne—struck Florida in a stretch of just 43 days in 2004. Frances and Jeanne would strike the Treasure Coast at nearly the same spot and exactly three weeks apart. Ivan would smash the Panhandle, and tiny but vicious Charley would ravage Southwest Florida.

Boats piled up on Pine Island after Hurricane Charley

A year later, the season would be so busy it would run out of names. Katrina would pass through Florida, doing minor damage, on its way to a historic collision with New Orleans. And the late-season Wilma would finish off the unprecedented assault.

By the end of October 2005, South Floridians were past thinking about hurricanes and were into football rivalries and Halloween preparations.

Not so fast.

Sometimes, the difference between a hit and a miss is just dumb luck. Wilma’s center crossed over Naples but with its worst winds offshore, so that area suffered nearly no damage, even as the system swung around and tore up the Atlantic coastline from the upper Keys to the Space Coast.

With 125 mile-an-hour sustained winds at landfall, the storm raced across the state in just four and a half hours, exiting south of Jupiter.

Wilma caused what was at the time the most widespread outage in Florida Power & Light Co. history, darkening 3.2 million of 4.3 million homes and businesses in 42 counties. Some people were without power for three weeks.

It’s been relatively quiet since. Yikes.

A shredded palm tree in Punta Gorda after Hurricane Charley; photo credit: TNS VIA ZUMA PRESS WIRE

The saying is that people in the hurricane zone get three days warning, the tornado zone three minutes, and the earthquake zone three seconds. On top of that, while a tornado or earthquake can strike at any time, everyone in Florida pretty much knows when it’s off-season and when it’s high season.

Still, scores of residents—even long-timers who should know better—let June turn into July and August with no plan for window coverings, no plan for supplies, and no plan for whether to stay or go and, if going, where.

You’d think the images—some decades old and grainy, others pulled from cell phones and as recent as the past summer—would be enough to spur them to action. Before it’s too late.


* This article is adapted from Black Cloud: The Deadly Hurricane of 1928, 2016 edition, published by Florida Historical Society Press. Additional sources were the National Hurricane Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

* Eliot Kleinberg is the author of more than a dozen books, including Black Cloud. He was a journalist for four decades until his retirement in December 2020 after 33-1/2 years at the Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, where he covered virtually every aspect of local news, including hurricanes. He also wrote a weekly local history column and one on Florida history that appeared in 24 newspapers statewide. He and his wife have two adult children and live in suburban Boca Raton.

This story is from the July/August 2022 issue of Boca magazine. For more like this, click here to subscribe to the magazine.

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