This week marks a sad anniversary, the 86th of the the worst natural disaster in the history of Florida. In 1928, southern Florida was still recovering from the 1926 “Great Miami Hurricane” which adjusted for inflation remains far and away the most expensive Hurricane in this history of the United States. The 1926 storm was one of the major triggers that helped create the Great Depression which began earlier in Florida than the rest of the nation.
Two years later Florida was hit by a storm that killed far more people than Katrina, Andrew, Camile, Ivan and Donna combined. The 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane which is best described in Palm Beach Post writer Eliott Kleinberg’s Black Cloud: The Great Hurricane of 1928 was a tragedy that had a disproportional influence those of lower incomes and residents who were black. The storm made landfall as a category four around West Palm Beach and destroyed almost 2,000 homes in the city. But it was inland where it did its real damage, creating a great flood of Lake Okeechobee and killing in excess of 2,500 residents of the area around the lake. It remains the largest natural disaster in Florida’s history and led to the building of the Hoover Dike which has protected the lake ever since.
Inland, the hurricane wreaked much more widespread destruction along the more heavily populated coast of Lake Okeechobee. Residents had been warned to evacuate the low ground earlier in the day, but after the hurricane did not arrive on schedule, many thought it had missed and returned to their homes. When the worst of the storm crossed the lake, the south-blowing wind caused a storm surge to overflow the small dike that had been built at the south end of the lake. The resulting flood covered an area of hundreds of square miles with water that in some places was over 20 ft (6 m) deep. Houses were floated off of their foundations and dashed to pieces against any obstacle they encountered. Most survivors and bodies were washed out into the Everglades where many of the bodies were never found. As the rear eyewall passed over the area, the flood reversed itself, breaking the dikes along the northern coast of the lake and causing a similar but smaller flood.
The 1928 storm remains vivid in the memories of those families who went through the hardship. Stories have been passed down through the generations. This outstanding Fort Lauderdale News/Sun Sentinel story from 1988 captures some of that spirit.