As reports were coming in over the radio of the storm hitting Puerto Rico, many around Lake Okeechobee weren’t panicked. Those around the lake had survived a previous hurricane a few years before and reports from weathermen at the time suggested that the storm wouldn’t even hit the Florida mainland.
But on Sept. 16, 1928, the hurricane made landfall, bringing with it a wave of death and destruction.
The storm moved across the lake northwest diagonally, from Pahokee to near the area where Buckhead Ridge is today. High winds ripped roofs from buildings, while floodwaters either lifted entire houses up and carried them away or caused them to disintegrate completely. Water from the lake came rushing though the communities of Belle Glade and Pahokee, killing thousands.
Carmen Salvatore was an Italian immigrant and World War I veteran who helped found Pahokee. He was one of the lucky few to survive the hurricane and, in 1992, the Florida Folklife Program interviewed him to document life around the lake during the early 1900s.
Unsurprisingly, the role the hurricane of 1928 played came up when Salvatore was telling his life story.
“The wind started about a half an hour before sundown,” Salvatore said. “Then the water started coming up. This was at night. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. The rain was coming down in sheets, not drops now, I mean sheets. We got behind a ridge to avoid the water. Then the water started coming over the ridge. That scared me.”
During a lull in the storm, Salvatore and a friend went to check on an elderly couple in the neighborhood.
“Mr. and Mrs. Hunter were in their eighties and lived about 300 feet from me,” recounted Salvatore. “We got to their house and the water from the lake had went right through the house. Went inside and nobody was there. We found Mrs. Hunter within 10 feet from where we were. She heard us calling her but she was so weak she couldn’t answer back. We found Mr. Hunter riding a dead cow 600 feet from there out in the muck and water.”
“Everybody had a story to tell,” continued Salvatore. “And you think that story would be about as bad as it could be, but the next guy would give you one worse than that one.”
The day following the storm Salvatore described people as people shellshocked, walking around the community in a daze as they processed what had just happened. Property damage amounted to over $25 million. Over 2,500 people died, many of whom were migrant farmworkers. Bodies were found in ditches, in trees, anyplace the swirling waters might have carried them. Farmers reported finding the skeletons of the hurricane’s victims in their fields even years later.
A mass funeral was held in West Palm Beach for many of those who died. Survivors spent days and weeks gathering bodies into makeshift coffins to be buried. Eventually, volunteers had to turn to cremation because of the massive number of dead the storm left in its wake.
Then President-elect Herbert Hoover visited the Okeechobee area to see the destruction firsthand. Eventually the Herbert Hoover Dike was constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help prevent another mass loss of life from happening in the area again.
“When the hurricane was over with we were dumbfounded,” said Salvatore. “There was no wind, no life. You were in a world by yourself without any evidence of life. You were all by yourself. That’s the best way I can describe it.”