Saturday, July 30, 2011

Florida History: 1928 Hurricane, second deadliest in US history

By Jane Feehan

The Hurricane of 1928 or Okeechobee hurricane is ranked as the second deadliest in U.S. history, topped only by the 1900 Galveston hurricane, which killed about 8,000.

The 1928 storm spun off the African coast near Cape Verde in early September. It gathered strength crossing the Atlantic, then slammed into Guadaloupe, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas, killing 900. During the early evening hours of September 16, the 130-mile-wide storm barreled into the Florida coast between Jupiter and Boca Raton.

A storm surge 10-20 feet hit Palm Beach as the hurricane tramped westward into the farming region of Lake Okeechobee. Winds were estimated at 145 mph. Some say gusts measured up to 160 mph. A barometer in West Palm Beach plunged to 27.43, the lowest ever recorded to that time. A category 4 storm, it pushed water out of Lake Okeechobee into an area 75 miles long and six feet deep. The six-foot mud dike bordering the lake succumbed easily to the storm’s wrath.

The first day after the storm 50 people were estimated dead. (Population of South Florida then was about 50,000.) The official record eventually grew to more than 1,800 but many knew that number was inaccurate. In the blistering sun, the dead were buried quickly in mass graves. One of the mass graves was dug at Tamarind Avenue and 25th Street in West Palm Beach and now bears a State of Florida historical marker. Three fourths of the dead were non-white farm workers. (Well-known Fort Lauderdale builder Ed King, living at the lake, died as he tried to rescue two children.) 

For years, farmers in the area continued to uncover human bones left by the 1928 hurricane – enough to justify a corrected death toll. In 2003 the official death number was raised to 2,500. Many say there were more who perished … all say the toll will never be known.

The mud dike was replaced by a 30-foot wall, the Hoover Dike (President Hoover visited). It hasn’t been tested by a category 4 or 5 hurricane and is in need of frequent maintenance. The storm caused $25 million in damages or $16 billion in today’s dollars. Hurricane Katrina’s damage was well over $81 billion.

According to the National Hurricane Center’s publication, The Deadliest, Costliest, and most Intense United States Tropical Cyclones from 1851 to 2006, “sociologists estimate that people only remember the worst effects of a hurricane for about seven years.”  An exception to that may be the Lake Okeechobee farmers who came across so many human remains for decades after the disaster.
Follow hurricane news, visit See comments upper right on that site to get latest on developments.
National Hurricane Center:
3. McIver, Stuart. Glimpses of South Florida History. Miami: Florida Flair Books, 1988.

Tags: Florida hurricane history, Florida history, Ed King, Lake Okeechobee


Anonymous said...

Good morning Jane. I was nosing around looking for stuff about the 1926 'cane nd found you. Might I reccommend Elliot Klienbergs book Black Cloud for this 1928 blog. it is a good book with some first hand testimonies. I witnessed an old timer approach him one day at a PBCHS meeting, and listened in. Gave me chills to hear the terror in this ol' boys voice as he recounted being chased up onto a table, then into the attic, then through the roof and into the water. Good book, you would prolly like it. Keep up the good work, see ya around!
Marty Baum

Jane Feehan said...

Thank you, Marty. I read that book when it came out; it was terrific. It was one of the few books I borrowed instead of buying so don't have it in my library. Couldn't remember the name of it. I now have it linked from Amazon to this post. Thanks!

-Jane Feehan