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Remembering The 1928 Storm That Unleashed "Lake O"

Palm Beach Post archives

It was a monster.

First, it hit the Caribbean. And once it touched down in the United States, its victims were mostly African-American. When the waters rose and the levee broke, there was nowhere to go. 

This isn't New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago. This is Palm Beach County during the Great Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928. It was one of the deadliest storms in U.S. history, and yet it's been largely forgotten.

“Most Americans have no clue what happened,” says Palm Beach Post reporter and South Florida historian Eliot Kleinberg.

“If it had drowned 3,000 white businessmen in downtown West Palm Beach, they’d still be talking about it,” adds Kleinberg. “But who did it kill? Mostly poor, black migrant workers.  These people’s deaths were really almost invisible.”

In 1988, the 60th anniversary of the storm, a reporting assignment took Kleinberg to Belle Glade to talk to some of the survivors.

“Something told me to save my notes,” he says.

In 2004, Kleinberg published, “Black Cloud,” an exhaustive reconstruction of the tragedy and its aftermath.  In the book, Kleinberg describes how primitive storm forecasting, lack of communication and virtually non-existent evacuation routes all contributed to the disaster.

And a flimsy muck dike was the only thing separating thousands of Lake Okeechobee-area farmers and impending doom. When the storm touched down on September 16, 1928 and the dike collapsed, the water covered the land in what Kleinberg describes as "a moving engine of death."

Credit Palm Beach Post archives
The south shore of Lake Okeechobee after the Great Hurricane of 1928.

The death toll at the time was listed as 1,836. But over the years, experts have said the number is closer to 3,000.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the white victims were given a decent burial. But nearly 700 black corpses were unceremoniously dumped into a mass grave in West Palm Beach.  Until 2000, the grave went without a memorial of any kind.

Among the markers at the site on the corner of 25th Street and Tamarind Avenue is a weather-beaten headstone missing several letters from the words “Historic Cemetery & Mass Grave Site,” and missing a number from the date of the disaster.

Christine DiMattei is WLRN's Morning Edition anchor and also reports on Arts & Culture.
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