The 1928 Hurricane
On September 16, 1928, a great storm struck Palm Beach County. It was equal to a Category
4 hurricane. The deadly hurricane reached shore with winds at 130 to 150 miles per hour. It dropped more than 18 inches of rain in less than 24 hours. This hurricane damaged or destroyed almost everything in its path. The strong winds and heavy rainfall caused Lake Okeechobee to overflow. Belle Glade, Pahokee, South Bay, and other surrounding communities were flooded. Flooding and high winds killed more than 3,000 people in the Glades. Yet the survivors overcame the disaster and rebuilt their towns. Because of this disaster, the Herbert Hoover Dike was built around Lake Okeechobee to prevent flooding in the future.
The Thomas family endured the 1926 hurricane in Ft. Lauderdale, but they did not expect the
1928 storm to reach their new home on Ritta Island in Lake Okeechobee. “Mutt” Thomas, then 13, recalled that his parents and neighbors chose to take refuge in the home of their caretaker, V. B. Thirsk:
[A]pparently the old mud dike, five to eight feet high and about 40 feet thick at the base, had been breached by the lake and was washed away. The house was a good four feet off the ground. By the time all the families had got in, the water was high enough that it was coming into the house. They put all the small kids on the table in the kitchen. As we went in the back door, the water continued to rise until it was halfway up the windows and rising more. … [T]here were 21 whites and 42 blacks. The colored people were in the front part of the house and they went through a hole in the ceiling. … My family all went through a hole in the kitchen.
By the time all of us got up in the ceiling the water was up over the windows. The wind was deafening, and when there was a lull you could hear the black people singing, praying, and crying. The weather picked up, and the house was moving. … [T]he house floated off the piling and water came up in the attic.
Mr. Thirsk and Daddy had knocked some of the metal roofing loose, making a hole through the roof. Daddy got out and was pulling a piece of tin off the roof and the wind blew him off the roof. That was the last he saw of the house. He came up swimming on top of the water, and he came in contact with a telephone pole. He hung on. ... The water was holding him up there. That's how high it was. As the wind slackened and the water receded, he slid down the pole and huddled there all night.
Mr. Thirsk got out after Daddy and took his wife out. He reached back into the house and grabbed someone else to pull out and it happened to be me. He and his wife straddled the top of the house and he pushed me up there. He was trying to get other people out of the house, when the house disappeared altogether. It was pitch dark, and you couldn't see anybody or anything. I started swimming … until I bumped into some floating timber. I decided to hang on, which I did, for the wind and the water carried me south of the old Sebring Farm. Eventually, the timbers I was holding on to and trying to ride stopped moving. The water got shallow, I tried to push them and couldn't, so I crawled up on them and pulled a little old sweater that I had on up over my head as the wind and the rain were driving so hard against me. I sat there until daylight.
Click on the screen to watch a computer simulation of the 1928 Hurricane as it passed over Lake Okeechobee. The storm surge created by the hurricane force winds killed at least 3,000 people.
The computer program was created by Dr. Steven Ward, Research Geophysicist Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, University of California, Santa Cruz.