Will Irma bring a second Hurricane of 1928 to Lake Okeechobee?

"It woke up old Okeechobee and the monster began to roll in his bed." — Zora Neale Hurston

click to enlarge Will Irma bring a second Hurricane of 1928 to Lake Okeechobee?
National Hurricane Center/NOAA

The monster is not Irma. The monster is Lake Okeechobee, and I don't want or need to be right, but the more I watch the projected path of Irma the more I think about our June 1 cover story, The Monster Next Time.

"The current condition of Herbert Hoover poses a grave and imminent danger... [The dike] needs to be fixed. We can only add that it needs to be fixed now, and it needs to be fixed right. We firmly believe that the region’s future depends on it.” —Lloyd's of London risk assessment of Lake Okeechobee — and not from 1928, but this millennium, quoted in our June 1 feature. 

Here's Irma's projected path:

click to enlarge Will Irma bring a second Hurricane of 1928 to Lake Okeechobee?
National Hurricane Center/NOAA

And here's the path the Hurricane of 1928 took:

click to enlarge Will Irma bring a second Hurricane of 1928 to Lake Okeechobee?
National Hurricane Center/NOAA

With respect to Lake Okeechobee, they're not that different, especially given the track error three days out. If anything, Irma poses more of a risk to Lake O. than the 1928 Hurricane did. 

"On the night of September 16, 1928, a hurricane that had swept across Puerto Rico hit south Florida, and the water dammed in Okeechobee had nowhere to go...That night, a mighty wave crashed through the 5-foot dike. More than a trillion gallons of water raced toward Belle Glade, Canal Point, Chosen, South Bay, Pahokee and a host of other poor black farming towns just south of Lake Okeechobee. Towns where everyday life involved snakes and mosquitoes and subpar living conditions before you add a hurricane into the equation. Towns where people had no way out. The wave covered those towns in 20 feet of water."

Read our story on the 1928 Hurricane and how it could happen again this week.

Later, those same black people were buried in mass graves. No official count of the death toll exists. Few of the dead — black or white — received proper burials. Relief workers stacked bodies in piles and burned them, then buried the ashes in mass graves.

And now a disaster threatens to happen again.

And even if the storm enters from the south — as opposed to from the east — the danger remains: the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee will not survive.

The same issues remain: government turning a blind eye to those living south of the lake who are imperiled if the dike fails. In all fairness, Governor Rick Scott did ask Trump for monies for repairing the dike, but the funds never made it into the budget. Still, such repairs should have been part of scheduled maintenance since, oh, the year after the dike was built.

The same demographic remains at risk: non-white people south of Okeechobee who don't have a reliable way out.

The same risk remains: Cape Verde hurricanes.

"Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so." —Douglas Adams

Cathy Salustri wrote about the Hurricane of 1928 in her book, Backroads of Paradise. She's CL's Arts + Entertainment editor. Contact her here


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Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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