Eighty years ago tonight, thousands of people around Lake Okeechobee were dying horrible deaths. The most powerful hurricane on record up to that time was shoving water out of the giant, shallow saucer of a lake and inundating several small lakeside towns. Most of the deaths occurred in Pahokee, Belle Glade and South Bay.
Thousands were killed – so many that it took almost 80 years to count them all. For years, the official U.S. death toll was placed at 1,833. But in his 2002 book, Black Cloud: The Great Florida Hurricane of 1928, author Eliot Kleinberg says that as many as 4,000 may have been killed in the U.S. – most of them during that awful night of September 16, 1928.
The death toll rises to a staggering 7,000 when you add those killed during the hurricane’s earlier rampage through the Caribbean Sea.
The hurricane made its U.S. landfall at Palm Beach around 6 p.m. on September 16, 1928 and moved westward across the Everglades to Lake Okeechobee. Most of the victims who were killed by lake flooding were black migrant workers who were harvesting fall crops at the productive vegetable farms near the lake. They were buried in an unmarked mass grave in West Palm Beach and promptly forgotten. In his book, Kleinberg discusses the racial aspects of the tragedy.
I asked Kleinberg – who also writes for the Palm Beach Post – to respond by e-mail to a few questions about his book. Here are his comments.
What prompted you to start digging into this story?
“I wrote my first story about the 1928 hurricane during the 60th anniversary in 1988. As a South Florida native and a hurricane history buff, I thought I knew all about the '28 storm. I knew hardly anything. Over the years, the more I learned – especially about the outrage of the unmarked grave – the more amazed I was that more hadn't been written about this. As the 75th anniversary approached, I began thinking about a huge special section in the Palm Beach Post. The more I thought about it, the more I realized: this is the most historic event in the history of my home, and it was a hurricane, and I'm the newspaper's chief writer for local history, and hurricanes, and hurricane history. This needs to be a book.”
Was there anything you discovered in your research that surprised you?
“There were two big surprises.
“One was the major role played by the American Red Cross and the irony that that agency was accused of racism, when it was just about the only entity that didn't practice it. (Editor’s note: the ARC mounted a massive relief drive to help storm survivors.)
“The tragic story of Coot Simpson (sorry, no spoilers; you'll have to read the book) was not a surprise, which is a tragedy by itself. (Editor’s note: Without revealing too much information, Simpson was a black laborer who was killed by a National Guard soldier after the hurricane.)
“I was surprised that my editor was surprised that Florida in 1928 was part of the Deep South and practiced institutional racism.”
Given reports about the structural integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike (a 150-mile long dike that was built around Lake Okeechobee after the 1928 hurricane), do you think a repeat of the 1928 tragedy is possible today?
“There cannot be a repeat of the 1928 disaster. The dike might breach in spots but it would have to completely wash out, which is not going to happen with a massive 50-foot pyramidical berm. Also, this time around, many of those in the Glades will have been able to flee, which they couldn't do in 1928, because of lack of roads and, for most, lack of any kind of transportation out.”
Any other important or interesting points?
“Two important points:
“First, it is amazing that this is the second deadliest natural disaster of any kind in U.S. history and most Americans – heck, most Floridians – never heard of it. I say in the introduction that one has to wonder how it would be remembered had it drowned 3,000 white businessmen in downtown West Palm Beach or smashed a black tie affair on Palm Beach, instead of drowning thousands of poor black migrant workers.
“Second, when I do talks about the book, people ask, ‘Have we learned the lessons of the 1928 storm?’ I say, ‘We haven't learned the lesson of the last storm.’ People still do nothing to prepare for hurricane season, and the approach of a storm finds them scrambling for plywood and canned soup and water and, for the first time, mulling whether they need to evacuate and, if so, where they need to go. Hurricanes are just about the only weather event we can see coming and for which we can prepare. Failing to do so seems inexcusable.”
The photo shows a dramatic statue on the grounds of the Palm Beach County Public Library in Belle Glade, Florida. It depicts a family trying to flee the floodwaters that are about to overtake them.