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THE HURRICANE OF 1928

The story behind the mass grave in Pahokee.

Lake Okeechobee

Looking out at Lake Okeechobee from Pahokee Marina | Photo © 2016 Sugarbomb

Hurricanes are good in that they have a tendency to blow out the boarded up windows keeping me from getting into abandoned buildings and giving the cops so many other priorities to worry about in the aftermath that they don't really care about some girl slipping through a window and taking pictures of said abandoned buildings. The residents of Pahokee would be disinclined to agree with my view on hurricanes though, seeing as a hill of land that acts as a dike is the only thing keeping their town from being completely washed out by the might of Lake Okeechobee.

This is precisely what happened in 1928. The fourth storm of the season in a time before we gave deadly hurricanes cute little nicknames hit Palm Beach County on September 17, 1928 as a category 4 with winds of 145 MPH. The resulting storm surge caused water from the lake to pour over the southern edge, flooding Pahokee and surrounding communities with up to 20 feet of water. Take a moment to picture what that much water even looks like; it's about the height of a two-story building and certainly higher than even the current dike that offers the illusion of protection today.

In this area alone over 2,500 people were killed in the 1928 hurricane and its aftermath, most as a result of the flooding, and it is still known as one of the deadliest hurricanes of the North Atlantic basin. The memory of the destruction this storm brought to the communities surrounding Lake Okeechobee has mostly been eclipsed by natural disasters in more recent decades but Floridians would do well to remember the mistakes of the past to avoid a repeat performance from Mother Nature in the future.

Map showing flood damage to the Lake Okeechobee area by the hurricanes of 1926 and 1928 | Photo © State Library and Archives of Florida

It's easy to think that this tragedy was nearly 100 years ago and that it could never happen today with our modern technology. I guess you could try to comfort yourself with this belief, but let me tell you, after what I witnessed in September 2017 with Hurricane Irma – a combination of people's mindless gasoline panic, the general public's inability to prepare for a storm in any meaningful way other than fighting over 400 cases of water at Walmart, and how little anyone can realistically predict where a storm is going to hit – another incident like the 1928 hurricane could easily happen again.

This is especially true for Pahokee, which looks much the same today as I imagine it looked in 1928. Just walking through the city itself in late September 2017, I couldn't tell if power just hadn't been restored after Hurricane Irma or if most of these homes just hadn't had power to begin with.

In 1928, when South Beach was irrelevant to anyone except elderly Jewish people and Hollywood was a newly-formed city with a population of just around 2,000, the area surrounding Lake Okeechobee was heavily populated. Produce was shipped throughout the state of Florida by boats from this region.

Over the month preceding the 1928 hurricane, heavy rainfall had caused the water level in Lake Okeechobee to rise by three feet. This high water level in the lake was only one ingredient in a recipe for disaster, but it was enough to cause authorities to tell residents of the cities close to the lake to evacuate the area as the hurricane approached.

Coffins stacked beside the road between Belle Glade and Pahokee, after the hurricane of 1928 | Photo © State Library and Archives of Florida

The 1928 storm had already devastated the Caribbean, at one time reaching category 5 strength when it hit Puerto Rico with 160 MPH winds, before weakening to a category 4 by the time it approached the coast of Palm Beach County.

In true Wilma fashion, the hurricane stalled off the Florida coast, causing it to arrive hours later than expected. When the weather hadn't deteriorated, many of the people that had evacuated believed that the hurricane had turned and missed their homes, so they returned.

West Palm Beach at height of hurricane | Photo © State Library and Archives of Florida

When the outer bands of the hurricane finally did begin to move in, the heavy rain caused the water level in Lake Okeechobee to rise even further in the following hours. When the most intense part of the hurricane crossed the lake, the heavy south-blowing winds caused much of the water in the large lake to rush south. The storm surge quickly overwhelmed the dike that had been built at the south end of the lake and inundated the surrounding area.

M. Safan (sanitation officer), Miss Jule O. Graves (nurse), and Dr. H. Mason Smith outside of the State Board of Health headquarters in Pahokee, Florida, 1928 | Photo © State Library and Archives of Florida

Houses in the cities around the lake were floated right off their foundations and carried along with the flood before being crushed to pieces against any obstacle that they encountered. When the eye of the storm passed and the winds shifted, victims' bodies as well as many survivors that had managed to cling to wreckage or otherwise avoid falling victim to the water itself thus far were washed out into the Everglades. Many of these bodies were never found.

The floodwaters in communities around the lake persisted for several weeks after the storm, impeding clean up and rescue efforts. Most of the fatalities – around 75% – were migrant farm workers who had no documentation. This made identification of any of the bodies that hadn't been swept out into the Everglades very difficult and also made it impossible to accurately gauge the amount of people that were still missing.

Coffins stacked along the bank of a canal in Belle Glade, Florida after the hurricane of 1928 | Photo © State Library and Archives of Florida

Sources at the time couldn't even agree on the death toll, varying between the Red Cross estimate of 1,836 and older sources that put the casualties over 3,400 (including the Caribbean). In 2003, the amount of deaths resulting from the hurricane of 1928 was revised to vaguely state "at least" 2,500 fatalities in the United States.

Trucks loaded with coffins in Belle Glade, near Pahokee, after the hurricane of 1928 | Photo © State Library and Archives of Florida

It's difficult burying people in the Everglades – locals say it has something to do with the water table and the peculiar nature of the muck. Whatever the cause, the result is the same – coffins float.

Someone not familiar with Florida would imagine that September heralds the beginning of fall. The official Autumnal Equinox is less than a week after the date on which the unnamed hurricane made landfall. While the calendar may say "autumn," it is still very much late summer in the Florida swamp; the heat is intense without the benefit of the sea breeze that the cities closer to the coast enjoy, and the humidity makes the air heavy. In this weather, something had to be done with the bodies and it needed to be done quickly.

Loading bodies of those who perished in the Everglades into truck at Belle Glade | Photo © State Library and Archives of Florida

In the beginning, a few dozen bodies were sent to West Palm Beach to be buried in a mass grave. Hundreds of African American farm workers were buried in a segregated cemetery, and several days later over 1,600 more victims were buried in the largest of many mass graves in the areas around Lake Okeechobee. This mass burial site is located in Port Mayaca, 10 miles north of Canal Point. Despite these mass graves being created for the thousands of bodies left in the hurricane's aftermath, it ended up not being good enough or fast enough.

"After about the fifth day, we couldn't handle it," Pahokee resident Carmen Salvatore recalled. "You couldn't identify them, and we had to burn them." Salvatore was one of the lucky survivors of the storm. In 1928, he was 32 years old and later recalled the bodies stacked on the Pahokee dock "like cordwood" and the smell of decay that hung heavy in the humid air in the days following the hurricane.

The Pokestop that is also a mass grave. I caught a Bulbasaur here. | Screenshot from 2016 © PokemonGO

Today, one of these mass graves sits just off Bacom Point Road in Pahokee. The site had been turned into a small park surrounded by mobile homes and a few aging houses, which is appropriately dismal and creepy given the overall resigned atmosphere that Pahokee exudes. Said park is also a Pokéstop in Pokémon GO. No one seems to acknowledge how morbid this whole thing is – your trailer is sitting on dozens of bodies!

I get the sense that Pahokee residents aren't really bothered by the fact that their homes are built on a foundation of corpses. If they cared enough to be bothered by anything at all, it would probably be the fact that the majority of the town is so far below the poverty line that it's nearly unfathomable that it exists in the same county as President Donald Trump's Mar a Lago, or the fact that the only thing protecting them from a repeat of the mass casualties of 1928 is a steadily eroding dike roughly the height of a single story house.

Judging by the looks on the faces of the people that we passed while walking down the street, they probably wouldn't mind having their drowned corpses washed out into the Glades, never to be seen again.

This just goes to show you that you can never really be sure what's lurking beneath the muck in the swamps of Florida. It may be a relatively short drive from the busy streets of West Palm but you're a long way from home. When you find yourself in Pahokee, be sure to tread lightly – you never know who may be just beneath your feet or when a sinkhole may open up to drag you down to meet them.

Pahokee Mass Grave

A plaque located on the site of the mass grave in Pahokee | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb

Port Mayaca Mass Grave

The historical marker at the site of the largest mass grave located in Port Mayaca | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb

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