Hurricanes in Florida aren’t new, but there are recent technological advancements that help save lives and reduce the extent of damages. Better medical equipment, better training, faster emergency response, sturdier structures, improved communication and the ease with which people can be warned and evacuate are all factors that reduce the property damage, injuries and deaths caused by hurricanes.
Those advantages didn’t exist a hundred years ago, which is why the state’s deadliest hurricane inflicted such a costly toll on the Sunshine State.
An estimated 2,500 Floridians lost their lives as a result of the Okeechobee Hurricane in 1928. The disaster, also known as the San Felipe Segundo hurricane, ranks among the deadliest disasters in the nation’s history.
The hurricane landed in Guadeloupe on September 12, 1928 as a Category 4 hurricane, killing 1,200. The next day it strengthened to a Category 5 with sustained winds clocked at 160 mph before making landfall in Puerto Rico. The hurricane destroyed almost 25,000 homes, damaged nearly 200,000 more and left half a million islanders homeless. Okeechobee is estimated to have killed more than 300 Puerto Ricans and caused $744 million of damages in today’s dollars.
By the time it had made landfall in West Palm Beach, the storm had weakened to a Category 4 with sustained winds of 145 mph. It moved into central Florida where it ran into Lake Okeechobee. The results were catastrophic for the area. The storm created storm surge out of the lake, pushing water out for hundreds of square miles – up to 20 feet deep in some places. The five communities most devastated were:
Although the exact death toll is unknown, it’s estimated that 2,500 residents drowned in the flooding.
The storm made a C-shape over the state, returning to the Atlantic temporarily before swinging back inland at Edisto Island, South Carolina. It remained tropical storm strength as it went up the east coast before swinging further inland over Pennsylvania, only weakening to a tropical depression when it entered Canada.
Most of the low-lying areas around Lake Okeechobee were populated by black migrant workers. These migrant workers accounted for approximately three quarters of the storm’s fatalities. Both white victims and black victims were thrown into mass grave sites, but only the storm’s white victims received a formal memorial service. Black workers also did most of the hurricane cleanup.
The hurricane wasn’t an entirely divisive event. There were aspects of the recovery effort that brought people across the state together. The Miami Red Cross Citizens Relief Committee mobilized to send bread, milk, coffee, sugar, blankets, medical supplies and cots. U.S. Senator Joseph Robinson, a vice-presidential nominee in that election year, was on the first relief train into the area.
Author Zora Neale Hurston wrote a book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, about the experience of black migrant workers in the aftermath of the hurricane. It can be still be found on many best books of the 20th century lists.
Several important safety improvements were made to the state’s infrastructure. Locals and engineers inspecting the aftermath of the storm could plainly see a dramatic difference in damage sustained by well-constructed buildings with shutters compared with poorly constructed buildings. Many steel, concrete, stone and brick buildings were virtually unscathed and the interiors of buildings with shutters escaped the brunt of the damage. Similar observations were made after the Miami hurricane just two years prior.
Observations from both hurricanes resulted in an overhaul of building codes that likely saved lives in subsequent storms.
In addition to improved buildings there was also a push to reduce future storm surge flooding. The Okeechobee Flood Control District, in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, drafted plans for a series of floodway channels, levees and control gates along Lake Okeechobee’s shores to control flooding, as well as conserve water, preserve fish and wildlife populations and prevent salt water intrusion.