The 1928 hurricane was the second deadliest natural disaster ever to strike the United States. The dead numbered more than 3,000. That’s surpassed only by the 1900 Galveston hurricane, which killed 6,000 to 12,000 people.
Ninety years later, the Historical Society of Palm Beach County is memorializing the 1928 storm with a photo panel exhibition in the Historic Courtroom of the Richard and Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum in West Palm Beach.
The 10 panels tell the story of the destruction the storm wreaked as it roared through Palm Beach County on Sept. 16, 1928, packing winds ranging from 130 to 150 mph.
“Most of the text is taken from memoirs or newspapers of the day,” chief curator Debi Murray said. “I thought their voices were the strongest.”
The tale emerges through their words and images such as a steam shovel removing sand lapping at The Breakers’ doors after the storm, houses tipped upside down by the rampage and bloated bodies discarded in its wake.
In West Palm Beach, people emerged the day after the storm to find “a city of wrecked homes and a city with its business district almost demolished,” the Palm Beach Independent reported.
But that was nothing compared to the horror in the Glades, where the majority of the victims died.
As the winds shifted from the north to the south, a double storm surge smashed the mud dike holding back Lake Okeechobee and washed over the surrounding communities.
The water rose so rapidly that within an hour it was waist-high on the first floor of the Glades Hotel in Belle Glade, where women and children huddled on the second floor.
Victims clung to trees as their homes were swept away. Uprooted homes careened through the flood waters for miles. Some areas remained underwater for days.
After the storm abated, the exhausting work of rescue and recovery began.
“We have memoirs where people talk about hearing saws and hammering going on night and day as they were building coffins,” Murray said.
Many of the dead were migrant farm workers.
Coffins were ferried by truck for burial in higher ground in West Palm Beach.
It was a harrowing drive along the only route — what’s now Southern Boulevard. “There were deep canals on both sides of the road and with water over everything, you couldn’t tell what was canal and what was roads,” survivor Ruth Ellen Shive Carpenter wrote in her memoir.
A photograph depicts passengers standing on the runners of a car as it plows through thigh-high water.
Within a few days, the bodies were so decomposed it was necessary to burn them on site.
The hurricane ended the Florida real estate boom of the 1920s and thrust the state into a depression more than a year before the 1929 stock market crash.
President Herbert Hoover ordered the construction of 143-mile dike to encircle the lake. But, as a text panel in the show reminds us, “its potential failure continues to be addressed by the Army Corps of Engineers, with rounds of reinforcement and rebuilding efforts.”