On this day in 1928, The Okeechobee Hurricane struck Western Palm Beach County, Florida.
Also known as the San Felpe Segundo Hurricane, the Okeechobee Hurricane was one of the deadliest hurricanes recorded in all of the North Atlantic basin. The storm developed off the shore of the west coast of Africa a week prior. Only 48 hours after forming, the storm was considered a Category 1 hurricane.
It reached Category 4 by the time it hit Guadeloupe on September 12. A day later, the storm strengthened into a Category 5 hurricane. With winds of over 160 mph, severe damage occurred in its path.
In Puerto Rice alone, over 500,000 people were left homeless due to the winds and flooding. Vegetation and agriculture took a huge hit as well, as the heavy rainfall extremely damaged it. Until Hurricane Irma this year, the hurricane of 1928 was the only tropical cyclone to hit Puerto Rico at Category 5 intensity.
Early on September 16, the storm began travelling through the Bahamas. It soon hit West Palm Beach, Florida where nearly 1200 homes were destroyed. The impact was most severe around Lake Okeechobee. Water began to pour out of the edge of the lake, resulting in severe flooding – as high as 20 feet above ground. At least 2500 residents drowned to death. Estimated damage was around $25 million.
After crossing Florida, the storm weakened significantly. Late on September 17, it dropped to a Category 1 storm, shortly before weakening into a tropical storm.
The death toll in Florida was highest in the poor, low-laying areas around the lake. Nearly 75 percent of the fatalities were black residents.
After the storm, African Americans were made to do most of the cleanup work. White victims received a proper burial at a cemetery in downtown West Palm Beach; but the bodies of black victims were burned and thrown into mass burial sites, such as the one in Port Mayaca.
In 2000, plans for a memorial at the burial site began. Robert Hazard, a resident of West Palm Beach, developed the Storm of ’28 Memorial Park Coalition Inc. in order to give black hurricane victims the respect they deserve.
Overall, the hurricane caused at least 4,079 deaths and nearly $100 million in damage.