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Recent Books Recount Horror of 1928 Lake Okeechobee Hurricane

Eighty-eight years ago, a savage hurricane tore across the Caribbean, killing thousands. Its winds probably reached 160 mph at times. The storm turned and crossed the Bahamas before smashing ashore at West Palm Beach, Florida on September 16-17, 1928. It tore across the Everglades to giant, shallow Lake Okeechobee, where uncounted thousands of migrant workers...

The Great Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928 devastated the Caribbean and South Florida, and killed thousands. Two recent books by authors Eliot Kleinberg and Wayne Neely detail the horrors of this savage storm. (Photo from Wikipedia, public domain)

Eighty-eight years ago, a savage hurricane tore across the Caribbean, killing thousands. Its winds probably reached 160 mph at times.

The storm turned and crossed the Bahamas before smashing ashore at West Palm Beach, Florida on September 16-17, 1928. It tore across the Everglades to giant, shallow Lake Okeechobee, where uncounted thousands of migrant workers were harvesting fall crops.

Although it had weakened some, its winds were still screaming at around 150 mph. A flimsy mud dike erected to hold back the lake was no match for the storm. The dike gave way, drowning thousands of migrants.

Two recent books recount the horror and devastation of this infamous storm. Eliot Kleinberg, a reporter at the Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, has released a new edition of his book, Black Cloud: The Great Hurricane of 1928.

Bahamian meteorologist Wayne Neely’s book, The Great Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928, delves into details about the storm’s devastation across the Caribbean and Bahamas.

Both authors answered a few questions about their books. Kleinberg’s responses are posted today. Neely’s responses will be posted tomorrow.

Palm Beach Post reporter Eliot Kleinberg, author of Black Cloud: The Deadly Hurricane of 1928.

The first edition of Black Cloud was published in 2003. What was it about this story that drew you to it initially?

When I came to the Palm Beach Post in 1987, I thought I knew about every major hurricane that had struck Florida. In 1988 I did a piece on the 60th anniversary of the (1928)  storm and was amazed at what I learned. As the 75th anniversary neared, I knew there had to be a major look at this storm, perhaps the most under-reported single event in U.S. history. At first I thought my employer, the Palm Beach Post, should do a big package or even a special section. I soon came to the conclusion this needed to be a book.

What prompted you to decide to publish a new edition of Black Cloud? Did you come across new information?

The answer is much more mundane than that. The person who’d been my literary agent for the book in 2003 gave me a heads up that the people who’d inherited possession of the book — the original publisher had been sold and resold many times — probably had no more interest in it and would relinquish the rights if we asked. They did. I then approached the Florida Historical Society, which had reissued my 1998 book Weird Florida, and they agreed to come out with a new edition of Black Cloud, with the proviso that I update it throughout and add a chapter on the 2004 and 2005 seasons.

In a recent interview on WLRN radio, you touched on some of the remarkable natural forces–such as wind speed and storm surge–that were unleashed by this hurricane. Can you explain what the immense power of this storm did to Lake Okeechobee?

The analogy I give is to take a frying pan and fill it to the lip with water and try to cross your kitchen floor without spilling any. The lake is about 20 feet deep at any one point. When winds cross it, all that shallow water has nowhere to go. It sloshes.

For centuries, water had just oozed naturally out of the bottom of the lake, through the Everglades, and into Florida Bay as nature’s filter. When Florida drained the Everglades and invited in farmers, the mom-and-pops complained their fields flooded all the time. The state installed a 6-foot high muck dike, which might as well have been toilet paper. The 1926 Miami hurricane came up and washed out the dike’s southwest side and drowned hundreds in Moore Haven. Managers then had two choices: abandon the land back to nature — something mankind never does — or build a bigger dike. They still were arguing about who would pay two years later when the 1928 storm hit.

People always ask how a storm coming west from the coast washed water out of the southeast corner of the lake.The National Hurricane Center people have said if it was daylight (when the hurricane struck) you’d have seen fish flopping on the lake bed at the top (northern) end of the lake. The storm came in at a northwest angle. Its winds, moving counterclockwise, came around and down from the north and pushed all the water to the southeast corner — where all the people were.

At the time of the hurricane, the death toll was placed at around 1,800. The toll has been raised to more than 3,000. What prompted the revision of the toll, and do you think the revised figure is reasonably accurate?

In early 1929, when the death toll of 1,836 was set by the Florida Department of Health and the U.S. Red Cross, both agencies essentially admitted that it was too low. But there was so much chaos and lack of record-keeping in the rush to dispose of bodies before they caused a health crisis that the agencies just settled on a number. That was it until 2003, when the National Hurricane Center, for the storm’s 75th anniversary, revised the number to 2,500 — not as a result of any new research but just as an acknowledgement that the original number was just wrong. I argue it probably is closer to 3,000. Add in those who died in the Caribbean and along the storm’s path up through North America and it’s probably 6,000.

Why was the death toll so high?

The water, the water, the water. Some half a million people in South Florida experienced Category 5 hurricane winds in Andrew, but only 15 died. Andrew was a dry storm. Hurricane scholars say it’s the water that causes the most death. In 1928, the biggest killer hurricane in Florida history killed not by wind, and not even by bring ashore in a surge the ocean that nearly surrounds the state, but with fresh water flooding — in this case allowing all that water in the big lake to wash over all those people.

During your research for the book, did you come across any anecdotes or information that were especially compelling?

It soon became clear in my research that the theme of the book was going to be the tragedies of a monster storm whose death toll was geometrically multiplied by man’s feeble attempt to control nature. A second, but equally tragic theme was the institutional racism to which authorities and citizens clung even as they suffered through, and recovered from, this apocalypse. Probably the most profound individual story I uncovered was that of Coot Simpson. He was a black resident of West Palm Beach who was “recruited” — kidnapped — to help in cleanup. When he decided after three days he needed to go home to his family, the confrontation didn’t end well. To learn the rest, you need to read the book.

After the 1928 hurricane, work started on a substantial levee that eventually encircled Lake Okeechobee. During the past decade or so, however, some doubts have been raised about whether the levee has been properly maintained. Could the levee withstand another storm like the 1928 hurricane?

The dike leaks. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been spending hundreds of millions in recent years to shore it up. Politicians have been urging them to speed things up. They don’t want to be in the position people put themselves in after the 1926 storm, of making plans but taking their time. People are afraid a hurricane could hit the lake tomorrow.

Is there a lesson that should’ve been learned from this tragedy?

We have a luxury our friends in the earthquake and tornado zones don’t have. We see hurricanes coming. But so many people don’t educate themselves. They don’t find out if they’re in an evacuation zone. Most aren’t and those who are are in it because of water. In nearly all cases, people are far safer in their homes than getting out on the road and chancing being trapped on the expressway when the storm rolls over them. And people don’t take a few minutes before the season to think about window coverings, the number one defense against costly damage to their homes. Why not? How much of a kick in the pants do you need?

Listen to author Willie Drye discuss his IPPY Award-winning book, For Sale-American Paradise, with host Frank Stasio on WUNC radio’s “The State of Things,” and with Joseph Cooper on WLRN’s “Topical Currents.”

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Meet the Author

Willie Drye
Willie Drye is an award-winning author and a contributing editor for National Geographic News. He and his wife live in Wilmington, North Carolina.