Roaring: Hurricane Four
On The Lake Okeechobee Hurricane Of 1920s America
On Sept. 6, 1928, ships sailing off the west coast of Africa began to report the formation of a tropical depression. Within a day, the reports changed, upgrading it to a tropical storm.
With few consistent observations of tropical cyclones available at the time, the storm churned across the Atlantic Ocean without any eyes on it. Without any reports coming in of its location and track, it intensified the closer and closer it got to the United States.
By Sept. 10, the S.S. Commack, a ship sailing due 9,000 miles east off the island of Guadeloupe, was the first recorded encounter with the storm in days. The ship’s crew confirmed that it had become a hurricane during its trek across the seas.
Throughout the next week, this newly formed hurricane would intensify to become a rare and dangerous Category 5 beast of a storm and go one to be one of the deadliest and most expensive storms in United States history. It would affect building codes, set up new flood controls and even showcase the awful racism in the history of the sunshine state of Florida.
At a time when cyclones weren’t identified by names, it earned various nicknames such as “The San Felipe Segundo Hurricane” or its most common one, “The Lake Okeechobee Hurricane.” But at the time, it was merely classified as the fourth tropical cyclone of the season: Hurricane Four.
By Sept. 12, the cyclone’s eye had started to move across the Leeward Islands. Because of the instruments of the time, and the little tracking of the storm by then, these poor people stuck in these islands had very little warning that a monster was barreling towards them. The result would be massive death and destruction.
The island of Dominica was hit by a weaker part of the storm, but a fatality still occurred. On the island of Martinique, three souls were lost. The island of Saint Croix, which had more than 140 buildings destroyed, saw nine people lose their lives. On the island of Saint Kitts, nine deaths were reported, six of them from the collapse of a schoolhouse. Thirteen died on the island of Nevis. The island of Montserrat, which arguably had the most advanced warning out of all the islands, still suffered 42 deaths. Across these islands, nearly a million were estimated to have gone homeless.
But undoubtedly the island that was hit the worst among them was Guadeloupe. It took a direct hit of all the power and fury that came with the center of a Category 4 hurricane. Around 1,200 people died and three-fourths of the survivors were left homeless. Buildings had been torn from their foundations, with very little remaining in the aftermath. A ship, the Albatross, had sunk thanks to the storm, with 80 casks of rum on board. It was estimated that up to 95 percent of some of the island’s crops had been destroyed.
The storm left the Leeward Islands with more than a thousand dead, nearly a million without shelter and economically devastated survivors. It then set its sights to U.S. soil.
Puerto Rico, by then a United States territory, had been given warning ahead of the approaching storm; unlike their Caribbean brethren in the Leeward Islands, they had time to prepare. Twenty nine years prior, in 1899, a hurricane had killed around 3,000 on the island, and residents were hell-bent on not letting such a toll happen to them again.
Thanks to the limitations of the time, we do not know for sure how large the hurricane was. We do know it was particularly sizable, estimated by modern hurricane historians to have been more than 200 miles in diameter. Worse yet, by now it had intensified into the two most terrifying words associated with a hurricane: Category 5.
Landing on the day of the feast of Saint Felipe, the storm would be nicknamed in this part of the world as “The San Felipe Segundo Hurricane,” given it was the second such storm to land on this day in recorded history. It made landfall as the only hurricane to have hit Puerto Rico as of this writing as a Category 5 storm.
It slowly but surely moved across the island with hurricane force winds for nearly 24 hours, dumping record rainfall onto the U.S territory. Whole towns were swept away. It left an estimated half-million homeless. Amazingly, the most powerful storm to have hit Puerto Rico in its recorded history was not its deadliest. Nonetheless, more than 300 were estimated to have died in the cyclone.
The real damage that this historic hurricane struck the island with was economical. It destroyed millions of dollars worth of crops, with the coffee bean industry taking the worst of the hit. It would take years for the coffee bean farmers to bounce back from the storm just to even start growing them again. Overnight, the island went from one of the major exporters of coffee to not even making the list among the top ones. It has yet to ever regain such a title.
The hurricane left Puerto Rico so devastated that wrath of its kind from a cyclone would not be seen on the island again until 2017’s Hurricane Maria, nearly 90 years later. The advanced warning and the island’s experience with such storms has been credited to have contributed largely to the death toll not being as horrible as it perhaps should have been on paper.
The hurricane had weakened to a Category 3 storm as it left the island. The Greater Antilles and the Bahamas were next on its travels.
The Bahamas saw major damages to infrastructure, crops and economy. Hotels were damaged, buildings collapsed and the food crop almost entirely destroyed. However, the advance warning lead to “only” three reported deaths — one of them being a 10-year-old girl who had drowned after falling into a trench.
In the Turk islands, the advanced warning had allowed them to be prepared as well, reducing possible death tolls. However, boats that got too close to the storm were wrecked, although the crews were successfully rescued. Tragically, a sloop with 18 passengers foolishly out on the water at the time sank, with all 18 perishing. One survivor on the island was quoted as comparing the winds to the sound of a New York City subway train going full speed.
The massive killer monster then turned its eye towards the sunshine state, and thus neared the United States itself. This is were most of the death would come from.
Florida in the Fall of 1928 was going through something that it had not experienced in generations — it was a competitive state in the 1928 presidential election. Thanks in part to the Democrats nominating an anti-Prohibition Catholic northerner, the Republicans had a shot at winning the then-dark blue state for the first time since Reconstruction. On top of that, the state was going through a booming period of land buying, which meant its population was growing significantly. But the excitement of such change was suddenly paused for the incoming monstrous cyclone that was about to hit their shores.
The storm made landfall on the southeast coast of the large state. Although various fatalities occurred, it wasn’t yet a dramatic number thanks to advanced preparation. The damage was great of course, with homes destroyed and hits to various industry crops, but a historic death toll was yet to happen. Damage in places like Miami were minimal; Fort Myers saw just slight damage; although Tampa suffered cigar factory closings and heavy rainfall, it did not suffer catastrophic losses of life.
Where the cyclone made its deadliest contribution was in the Lake Okeechobee and Everglades region — hence its known nickname in the state as “The Lake Okeechobee Hurricane.” Lake Okeechobee is that large hole of water that you see placed right onto Florida’s map in the south eastern region, just next to the Everglades section of the state. It is almost a mini-Great Lake and the storm would use it as a powerful killing machine.
The lake’s surrounding areas were then mostly populated by migrant workers and those on the lower economic class of Florida life — almost exclusively black at that time. Because the storm proved to be slower than expected, and there were no continuous tracking forecasts at the time, residents mistakenly thought the storm had missed the region around the lake and returned from their would-be safe spots.
When the storm hit, the lake became a surge of powerful floods that drowned many and made what would today be billions of dollars in damage. It is estimated that maybe as much as 75 percent of the dead in this region were black. The floodwaters brought on by the lake sustained for days and in some places even weeks.
The storm seemed headed out of the state, traveling westward into the Gulf of Mexico, but to the horror of Florida residents, it readjusted and went north towards Jacksonville. In the northern part of the state, it devastated the agricultural system and the many plots of land meant for would-be new residents were destroyed. From there, the storm traveled northward out of the state and towards the Carolinas.
When the cyclone finished traveling through Florida, more than 2,500 had died, a vast majority of them thanks in part to the Lake Okeechobee storm surge. Poor and overwhelmed black survivors were subject to seeing their dead buried in unmarked mass graves. When whites were also buried this way in some parts of the state, they received memorial markers. In just the last two decades, markers and recognition of these black victims were finally put up. Some hurricane historians actually argue that the death toll may have been even higher.
Florida’s land boom ended overnight. The stock market crash of 1929 and the depression that followed didn’t help matters either. Thanks in part to the Disney World resort moving there and the power of air conditioning, the state would eventually bounce back decades later and become one of the superpower states it is known as today, but not before suffering in the hurricane’s aftermath.
Building codes were updated and flood controls put into place, including a major dike named after Herbert Hoover, the Republican they later voted for in 1928 for president. To this day, Florida is constantly preparing for the worst from a hurricane, and may arguably be the most prepared state in the nation for such storms.
“A price to pay for living in paradise,” one fellow Floridian once told me.
The hurricane became a typical tropical storm and then a depression and then nothing but a dissipating shell of itself as it traveled up into the states. It caused seven deaths in Pennsylvania, three in New Jersey and one in Maryland. It never struck again with the kind of wrath and fury it had come with in the southern part of the country or in the Caribbean.
All in all, the cyclone had taken more than 4,000 lives, more than half in Florida alone. It remains, as of this writing the second deadliest recorded storm in United States history and the seventh deadliest in Atlantic history. It also remains in the top 10 for the most powerful cyclones to have made landfall in the continental United States.
When infamous hurricanes of the past are brought up, names like Andrew or Katrina come up, and even pre-naming era storms like the 1900 Galveston hurricane or the 1935 Labor Day hurricane. And yet this powerful and devastating killer storm has been seemingly mostly forgotten.
It was the only major hurricane of the 1928 season.