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 were posted yesterday. Neely’s responses follow:
There have been several other books written about the Lake Okeechobee hurricane. What prompted you to decide to do your book?
Many years ago I was doing research for my book Rediscovering Hurricanes-The Major Hurricanes of the North Atlantic and I went to the National Hurricane Center to research this hurricane for the book and to my surprise I discovered that the majority of the storm victims in Florida were actually black migrant farm workers from the Bahamas. I found this fascinating and unbelievable because I majored in Bahamian history and geography in college and I up to that point I never knew this and based on my research, nor did the average Bahamian either. Being a student of history I felt compelled to write this book from a Bahamian perspective to shed light on this storm and from an angle that the other books didn’t-the Bahamian migrants storm victims and the great impact the storm had on the Bahamas and the State of Florida at the time.
This hurricane is infamous for the huge death toll it inflicted around Lake Okeechobee in Florida, but it also struck a devastating blow to the Caribbean and the Bahamas. Could you explain the death and destruction the storm caused in Puerto Rico and elsewhere?
The Great Okeechobee Hurricane was one of the greatest and deadliest hurricanes of the North Atlantic. Guadeloupe received a direct hit from the storm, apparently with little warning and damage reports indicated “great destruction” on the island. Approximately 85 percent to 95 percent of banana crops were destroyed, 70 percent to 80 percent of tree crops suffered severe damage, and 40 percent of the sugar cane crop was ruined. The British colony Montserrat, just north of the storm’s center, was warned in advance of the storm but still suffered £150,000 (1928 UKP) in damages and 42 deaths; Plymouth and Salem were devastated and crop losses caused near-starvation conditions before relief could arrive.
The storm passed to the south of the islands of Saint Kitts and Saint Croix, which sustained significant property damage and crops but no reported fatalities. Nevis also reported three deaths due to the storm. The island of Puerto Rico received the worst of the storm’s winds when the hurricane moved directly across the island at Category 5 strength. The hurricane was a very large storm as it passed directly over Puerto Rico. Hurricane-force winds were measured in Guayama for 18 hours; since the storm is estimated to have been moving at 13 mph, the diameter of the storm’s hurricane winds was estimated very roughly to be 234 miles. The rainfall recorded on September 13–14, 1928, remains the record for the maximum rainfall associated with a hurricane in Puerto Rico within a period of forty-eight hours.
Property damage on the island from winds and rain was catastrophic. The northeast portion of the island received winds in excess of Category 3 strength, with hurricane-force winds lasting as long as 18 hours. Official reports stated “several hundred thousand” people were left homeless, and property damages were estimated at $50 million. On the island there was no building that was not affected. Some sugar mills (“Centrales”) that had cost millions of dollars to build were reduced to rubble. Reports say that 24,728 homes were destroyed and 192,444 were partially destroyed. Most of the sugarcane fields were flooded, ruining the year’s crops. Half of the coffee plants and half of the shade trees that covered these were destroyed; almost all of the coffee harvest was lost. The coffee industry would take years to recover since coffee needs shade trees to grow. The tobacco farms also had great losses. After this hurricane, Puerto Rico never regained its prominence as a major coffee exporter.
A sloop traversing from Ambergris Cay to Grand Turk was lost, killing all 18 people on board. The storm caused heavy damage throughout the Bahamas, mostly to property and crops. In Nassau, some buildings which were recently repaired after the 1926 Nassau hurricane were destroyed during this storm. A 10-year-old girl drowned after falling into an open trench filled with water. At the Fort Montague Hotel, the windows, doors, and furniture were badly damaged. Similar impact was reported at the Royal Victoria Hotel, while the British Colonial Hotel was largely spared. However, the gardens of the three hotels were “damaged almost beyond recognition.”
On Bimini, sustained winds of 140 mph were observed, causing major damage to buildings. Ninety-five houses and some other buildings, including a few churches and government buildings, were damaged or destroyed on Eleuthera. Minor damage was reported on Rum Cay. Most of the food crops were destroyed. On San Salvador Island, four buildings were demolished, including two churches, while several other structures suffered minor damage. Food crops were nearly wiped out.
Following is a breakdown of the death toll by location:
Grand Turk 18
Puerto Rico 312-1,600
Total deaths in the Caribbean 1,224-2,824+
Florida 1928 estimated death toll 1,836 (changed to “at least” 2,500 in 2003)
Philadelphia area 7
New Jersey coast 3
Total US deaths 2,500-4,000
Total death toll 3,500-7,000
Death toll compiled by Florida Health Department:
Belle Glade 611
South Bay 247
Miami Locks 99
West Palm Beach 11
Prosperity Farms 5
Fort Lauderdale 2
Kelsey City (Lake Park) 2
Boca Raton 1
Canal Point 1
Deerfield Beach 1
Pelican Lake 1
Orange City 1
Stuart area 1
Unknown 669(would include 25 reported dead at Okeechobee)
Total deaths 1,833
Florida damage and Red Cross relief:
Affected about 112,200 people in 20 counties
Buildings destroyed or damaged 32,400
Damage $75 million (in 1920s dollars)
Livestock killed 1,278
Poultry lost 47,389
Families given Red Cross aid 30,325
Volunteers assisting with recovery 3,390
Many historic hurricanes from the last century have been reevaluated by contemporary meteorologists. Has the 1928 hurricane undergone this kind of reexamination, and have meteorologists altered the data about this storm, such as maximum sustained winds and lowest barometric pressure?
Yes, this storm was re-examined by the National Hurricane Center-HURDAT (Hurricane Database) and in 2003 they changed the Red Cross ‘official death toll’ from 1,836 to ‘at least 2,500’ because after re-examining the storm records they felt that the initial official count was much too low. So on the storm’s 75th Anniversary in 2003 they increased the official to ‘at least 2,500.’
Was there any particular aspect of this storm–its power, the huge death toll, or anything else–that especially impressed you about this hurricane?
For me I think it is a combination of all three factors. I was fascinated with the fact that it was a Category 5 hurricane with overall damage estimates of over $100 million, a total death toll ranging between 3,500-7,000 and the significant number of Bahamian migrant workers killed and the overall devastation it had on the region.
When you were researching your book, did you come across anything that surprised you about the 1928 hurricane?
Yes, the fact that so many of the storm victims were fellow Bahamians working on the farms in the Okeechobee region, living in sub-standard housing which contributed to the significant death toll. There was also an interesting story about an alligator who rescued a young child during the storm by keeping her afloat. What also surprised me was the fact that the meteorologists’ forecasts of this storm were wrong not because they were not skilled to give a correct forecast which would ultimately save lives but it had more to do with the lack of advanced technology (such as satellite and radar technology) to make a more accurate forecast during that era.
Do you think there were significant differences between the way Florida prepared for the storm and the way the Caribbean and the Bahamas prepared for the storm, and the ways in which they were affected?
No, all of them had advanced warnings that this hurricane was approaching their islands or countries but I think Florida not only got a wrong forecast that this storm would not strike Florida but also move into the Atlantic Ocean without striking Florida, causing many Florida residents to let their guards down.
Was there a long-term effect from the 1928 hurricane, and if there was, do you think that effect is still evident?
Yes, it was, first it resulted in the Herbert Hoover Dike being built around Lake Okeechobee to prevent future disasters like this from occurring again. To this day those dikes are still in operation in various US States. It resulted in the need to get rid of substandard housing. This hurricane also impacted the way we as meteorologists forecast future hurricanes and put in place a need for a better hurricane warning system for residents in the path of a storm. In my country of the Bahamas, it resulted in the government bringing forth the idea of developing building codes with a view of mitigating future storm damages. It was one of the first countries in the region to pass a law mandating building codes on future buildings and this storm was a template for that law. It also resulted in the Bahamas government debating and eventually came to fruition, the idea of building a local radio station as a form of hurricane warning system.
Was there a lesson to be learned from this storm?
Yes, and it is just as relevant today as it was in 1928 and that is…Preparation!
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.”