The Florida Flood that Accounted for the Most Deaths of Black People in a Single Day (Until Katrina)
Mr. Kleinberg is a staff writer for the Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, Fla., and author of Black Cloud: The Deadly Hurricane of 1928.
A hurricane catches residents off guard. A levee fails, sending a wall of water that drowns thousands. Government officials at first fail to grasp the immensity of the catastrophe. There are complaints that help was based on race. Leaders debate how to fix the problem next time or whether they should be in such a dangerous place at all.
The catastrophe that is Katrina is all too familiar to the people along Florida's Lake Okeechobee. They remember the great storm of 1928.
The 1928 hurricane might have accounted for the most deaths of black people in a single day in U.S. history, again, before Katrina. One has to wonder, if the storm had drowned 3,000 white people in downtown West Palm Beach, or smashed a black-tie affair on ritzy Palm Beach, instead of killing mostly black migrant workers from the Caribbean in Florida's interior, might it have received more attention over the years?
Three fourths of a century after it struck, to say the storm is still the deadliest weather event ever to strike Florida or the eastern United States does it a disservice. Its official death toll at the time was 1,836. Recently, the National Hurricane Center formally changed the toll to 2,500, not because of new information but as an acknowledgement of what officials said even in 1928: that the 1,836 figure was just too low.
The higher figure would make the storm the second deadliest natural disaster of any kind in U.S. history, behind only the Galveston, Texas, hurricane of 1900. At least until Katrina.
People think that hurricanes will kill them by hitting them with a flying board or collapsing their roof. But the deadliest storms on record, Katrina now included, have killed with water. In Galveston, a storm surge washed over the city. In Lake Okeechobee, and now in Katrina, winds broke an inadequate dam system and sent water pouring into the countryside.
Once, Lake Okeechobee was a mysterious inland body seen by few. But in the early 20th century, Florida leaders decided to drain the Everglades, exposing what would be some of the richest farm soil in America.
But the lake was a problem. It's only 12 to 20 feet deep, and when the winds blew across it, the water came out. So local and state leaders decided to build a 6-foot muck wall around it. They figured that would be enough as long as it didn't rain too hard too fast, and the wind didn't slosh that water.
In 1926, a hurricane that smashed Miami washed out a portion of the dike and drowned hundreds. As in New Orleans, local politicians said the next time would be a catastrophe and a more solid barrier was needed. As in New Orleans, politicians were still talking about it when the next time came.
In 1928, thousands stayed in the interior. People asked many times, “Why didn’t they flee?” Now people are asking the same questions about New Orleans. The answer in both cases is the same. For many people, fleeing just wasn’t an option.
As in Katrina, many of the victims were poor – in this case, poor migrant workers. While Katrina’s targets had the option of an Interstate highway system, those along Lake Okeechobee had the option of following a winding 2-lane road north or taking the road to the coast – the last place anyone would want to go with a hurricane bearing down. And the vast majority didn’t have access to a car, much less own one.
Meteorologists estimate the storm's top sustained winds were about 145 mph, just below a catastrophic Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Scale, when it struck the coast. And it was almost that strong when it crossed the shore of Lake Okeechobee.
In Tallahassee, Florida’s governor heard the first reports and suggested the damage was not that bad – at least, until the horrific reports began emerging from the interior.
Thousands were dead, their bodies lying in the stagnant flood water, which would stand for weeks, along with dead animals, rotting vegetation and all that mud and muck.
Out in the Glades, workers fearful of disease had tried to bury some victims, but the saturated ground spit them up. Some went into a mass grave along the lake's northeast shore. Some were piled into hills of humanity and set afire. Some were loaded onto barges and taken out of the interior.
Whites and blacks were separated, and about 70 whites went into a common grave at West Palm Beach's Woodlawn Cemetery, home to the white pioneers who had settled the city only a few decades earlier.
But about 674 were placed in an unmarked mass grave in the black neighborhood that was eventually forgotten by all but the residents. Buildings and a street were eventually built over it. It would be seven decades before local groups finally forced city officials to buy the land and erect a fence and markers to honor the dead.
After the storm, Florida leaders had to decide whether to abandon the interior back to nature or build a bigger, better dike. They chose the latter. Over three decades, a joint state and federal project built a 34 to 38 foot high dike, 10 to 30 feet wide at the top but 125 to 150 feet wide at the base. Water managers deliberately lower the lake when an especially wet storm is coming. And engineers insist the dike, which is far bigger and stronger than New Orleans’ levees, would not collapse in even a catastrophic storm. But it does leak.
Now, people ask, “Did we learn the lessons of the 1928 hurricane?” I always tell them that we haven’t learned the lessons of whatever was the last hurricane.
People continued to build along the coast and in flood-prone areas, ignoring the dire predictions of hurricane researchers that the historical cycle of hurricanes was bringing a new era of more and bigger storms and that the precautions in place might not be enough.
HNN's Katrina Coverage
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Alexander M. Godwin - 7/25/2006
I would like to know if names of the hurricane victims were recorded. I'm currently searching for info on family members in Okeechobee from that time period.
Walter McElligott - 9/7/2005
interesting, we divided black/white then--no was a fact of life then. Right?