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USF Libraries Exhibits

Okeechobee Hurricane, 1928

Impact on Florida

Date of landfall:           September 17, 1928

Lives lost (FL):          over 2,500

Category/wind speed:   4/145mph

Cost of damages:      over $35 million

In 1928, the Okeechobee Hurricane landed on W Palm Beach as a category 4 hurricane and has been recorded as one of the deadliest Atlantic hurricanes on record (Blake & Landsea, 2010) with over 2,500 fatalities, a number that has been revised several times and still may under-estimate the total loss of life (Dudley, 2003). Eliot Kleinberg talks on the Florida Humanities Audio Archive about his book documenting the Okeechobee Hurricane, Black Cloud. 

Residents of the agricultural community along the banks of Lake Okeechobee were unprepared and unwarned of the impending danger. The forecast was certain that the storm would not make landfall, so no advance preparations were made, and the poor migrant workers along the lake mostly did not own radios and had inadequate access to escape routes. Kleinberg talks of how people climbed higher in their homes, floor by floor, running from the rising water that flooded hundreds of square miles to depths up to 20 feet (1928 Okeechobee Hurricane, 2022). 

Lake Okeechobee Hurricane Problem.  December 3, 1928. Florida National Guard, Office of the Regional Commander, 116th Field Artillery Headquarters

Lake Okeechobee Hurricane Problem. December 3, 1928. Florida National Guard, Office of the Regional Commander, 116th Field Artillery Headquarters. Sumter Lowry Papers. USF Libraries Tampa. 

Communication to the Governor from the Florida National Guard describes the ‘perpetual likelihood of repeated disasters,’ giving descriptions of the infrastructural and architectural frailties that contributed to the loss of life.  

“The exceedingly flimsy construction common in the buildings of this section also adds to the hazard. It is noteworthy that practically all of the loss of life was due to drowning. Buildings in several cases, where they were of average good wood construction, well fastened together, survived the fury of the blow only to be floated off when the flood came, carrying occupants to safety on higher ground or riding out the storm, settling on some remote point with receding waters. However, in so many cases that it is heart-sickening to remember, the home of the lake shore dwellers in fact did tumble down about their cars, floating off piece by piece, leaving perhaps an iron range, or bed, and in at least on instance a sewing machine, to mark the spot where a dwelling had been.” 

Lake Okeechobee Hurricane Problem. December 3, 1928. Florida National Guard, Office of the Regional Commander, 116th Field Artillery Headquarters. Sumter Lowry Papers. USF Libraries Tampa. 

The picture of the Mote house above, from Lawrence Will's (1978) book including first hand accounts of the storm, captures the fate of one of the well constructed houses that was floated away.  The National Guard communication also provides plans and expected costs of fortifying the area against a repeat of loss asserting, “so long as the Okeechobee district remains open to settlement and lies unprotected as it now is from the ‘tidal wave’ action of the lake, we can anticipate serious loss of live with each hurricane passing over it.” 

Hurricane Protection is a Purpose of FCD Works.

Huser, T. (1970) “Hurricane Protection is a Purpose of FCD Works.” Central and Southern Florida Flood Control District News Release. Hampton Dunn Collection, University of South Florida Libraries Special Collections. 

Hampton Dunn reports how President Hoover had rushed to Florida to survey the damage and was “personally responsible for early Federal construction of Lake Okeechobee levees for the protection of life and property.”   

"The old-fashioned virtues of courage, fortitude and perseverance have transformed the former trap of death into a great agricultural empire, furnishing beef, vegetables and sugar for the nation’s table."” –Lawrence Will, quoted in Hampton Dunn PhototouringHoover Dike protects 'Big Water' (Lake Okeechobee).” 

Another retrospective report, by the Director of Information & Education of the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control District, Tom Huser, tells of how after the 1928 hurricane many residents of the glades would pre-emptively evacuate North whenever a hurricane was near.  

The Hoover Dike was one piece of a levee system operated by the Flood Control District incorporating more than 100 major spillways and dams, as well as 14 pumping stations for additional protection during hurricanes. When hurricanes are forecasted FCD personnel prepare by strategically opening or closing spillways (Huser, 1970). 

Explore how the Lake Okeechobee Hurricane irrevocably changed Florida with an eyewitness account by Lawrence E. Will in his book Okeechobee Hurricane and the Hoover Dike, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.