Eclipsing Ian: The 1928 Florida hurricane

The still uncertain but more than 100-strong death toll of Hurricane Ian and its vast devastation of Florida homes and businesses have evoked descriptors such as "historic" and "biblical proportions."

Those terms, while appropriate, are eclipsed in the timeline of Florida history by the hurricane in September 1928 that killed an estimated 3,000 people in the Everglades.  That number not only dwarfs Ian, but also exceeds the 1,800 fatalities of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and is second only to a 1900 hurricane that killed 5,000 people in the Galveston, Texas area.

As with Ian, destructive wind and raging water brought down the wrath of nature during the 1928 storm.  That time, the source of water was the Everglades' Lake Okeechobee, "big water" in the Seminole Indian language and the country's second largest freshwater lake.

Bordering the southeastern shore of the lake are several towns whose economies rely on winter vegetable farming in the area's rich black soil.  One of these communities is my hometown of Pahokee, "grassy water" in Seminole. 

The '28 hurricane came onshore in the Palm Beaches on September 16 and crawled westward to the lake 40 miles away.  The initial east-west wind was estimated at 155 miles per hour, but likely was higher since the local measuring equipment broke at that velocity.

The storm at first piled up the shallow waters westward.  Then, following passage of the storm's eye, the west-east wind drove the backed-up water over the lake's low soil dike.  The surge was estimated at 16–18 feet.

This onslaught destroyed hundreds of buildings and produced epic loss of life.  The Pahokee area was the most affected, since it was the only town sited directly on the lake.  The shoreline borders Main Street.

Most of the victims were poor field hands who lived in shacks, many of which were swept into the extensive network of canals that drained the swampy Everglades so crops could be grown in the fertile muck.  But even stronger residential and business structures suffered devastation.

After the wind and waters subsided, bizarre stories emerged: entire families killed; cars swept off the road into one of the canals and everyone in them drowning; people using axes to chop through roofs to escape homes tossed into the canals; people blown into the canals surviving by hanging onto empty barrels flung from oil platforms and doors from destroyed houses.

So many corpses littered the landscape that they had to be buried in mass graves — two sites in West Palm Beach and one holding 1,600 victims in Port Mayaca, a community a few miles north of Pahokee.  Some bodies were merely covered with lime to prevent disease and left to decay.

Following the storm, President Herbert Hoover led an initiative to build a levee around Lake Okeechobee.  Some politicians suggested the area be abandoned, with all residents evacuated and a fence built around the area.

But the president was adamant.  He was an engineer and as secretary of commerce had overseen America's shipping food to Europe during World War I.  President Hoover valued the contribution of the Everglades' winter crops to that program. 

Subsequently, a 143-mile-long levee was constructed and named for President Hoover.  It stands 30 feet high on average and slopes gently down to the lake on one side and down to the Everglades on the other.  Where my backyard ended, the levee began.

The levee's top is wide enough for two cars to pass in opposite directions.  In Pahokee, paved access leads from Main Street to the top, enabling the levee to double as a lover's lane.

Hurricanes have continued to batter the Everglades and the Hoover levee.  One report asserted that parts of the structure were in "grave and imminent danger."  These conditions led to a decades-long program to shore up the barrier and avoid a repeat of the 1928 tragedy.  The effort is expected to be completed this year.

Tom Elliott is a retired New York City corporate communications executive who now lives in Norwalk with his wife, Kay.  Both are Florida natives who have personally experienced several hurricanes.

Image: MarshallSpaceFlightCenter.

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