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The story behind the mass grave in Pahokee

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 and flood Pahokee and surrounding cities 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 far higher than even the current dike that offers the illusion of protection today. In this area alone over 2,500 people drowned in the flood and it is still known as one of the deadliest hurricanes of the North Atlantic basin. This should be the thing that comes to mind when people get terrified about hurricanes, not Andrew.

Red Cross headquarters in Pahokee, Florida, 1928 | Photo © Florida Memory

It's easy to think that it's almost 100 years later and that could never happen with all the technology that we have today but let me tell you, after what I witnessed with Hurricane Irma, a combination of people's mindless gasoline panic, 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 go could easily result in another incident just like this one. Especially for Pahokee, which looks much the same as I imagine it looked in 1928. Just walking through the city itself in late September 2017, I couldn't tell whether power just hadn't been restored post-Irma or they had never even had power to begin with.


In 1928, when South Beach was irrelevant to anyone except elderly Jewish people and Hollywood was a barely formed city with a population of just around 2,000, the area surrounding Lake Okeechobee was heavily populated and produce was shipped to all over the state by boat from this area. Over the month preceding the 1928 hurricane, heavy rainfall had caused the water level in Lake Okeechobee to rise 3 feet, only one ingredient in a recipe for disaster, but enough that authorities told residents to evacuate the area as the hurricane approached.

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 © Florida Memory

The storm of 1928 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 met with the coast of Palm Beach County. In true Wilma fashion, the hurricane stalled and arrived hours later than expected. Many residents that had evacuated believed, when the weather hadn't deteriorated, that the hurricane had turned and missed their homes, so they returned.

The heavy rain from the bands of the hurricane itself, when it finally did begin to move in, caused the lake water levels to rise even further in the following hours and when the worst of the storm crossed the lake, the south blowing winds caused much of the water in the large lake to flow south and the storm surge quickly overwhelmed the dike that had been built at the south end of the lake and rapidly flooded the surrounding area. Houses were floated right off their foundations and carried in all directions before being crushed to pieces against any obstacle they encountered. When the eye of the storm passed and the winds shifted, most survivors and bodies were washed out into the Everglades. Many of the bodies were never found.


The floodwaters in communities around the lake persisted for several weeks, 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 know the actual amount of people that were still missing. Sources at the time couldn't even agree on the official death toll, varying between the Red Cross estimate of 1,836 and older sources listing 3,411 (including the Caribbean). In 2003, the death count in the United States from this hurricane was revised to vaguely state "at least" 2,500 fatalities from the hurricane of 1928, which is what it stands at today.

Coffins stacked beside the road between Belle Glade and Pahokee after the hurricane of 1928 | Photo © Florida Memory

Burial services after the hurricane were quickly overwhelmed, which led to many bodies being placed in mass graves, one of which contained 1,600 bodies, located in Port Mayaca Cemetery. Today, one of these mass graves has been turned into a park surrounded by mobile homes, which is appropriately dismal and creepy for the resigned atmosphere Pahokee exudes. Said park is also a Pokestop in Pokemon GO. No one really seems to acknowledge how morbid this whole thing is.

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

Your trailer is sitting on dozens, possibly hundreds of bodies! But Pahokee residents likely aren't bothered by the fact that their homes are built on a foundation of corpses. If they cared 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 rapidly eroding dike roughly the height of a single story house.


But 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.

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