Palm Beach was slammed when the infamous Lake Okeechobee hurricane of 1928 crossed the island.
Sept. 16 marks the 80th anniversary of the hurricane, the deadliest storm in Florida history and the second-deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history behind the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.
The Category 4 monster packed near-150 mph sustained winds, killed 2,300 to 3,000 people, caused catastrophic damage and left thousands homeless. The eye of the storm stretched from Delray Beach to Lake Park.
Powerful winds drove water from the northern part of Lake Okeechobee and into the southeastern end, breaking a small, 5-foot muck dike and sending flood waters into Pahokee, Canal Point, Chosen, Belle Glade and South Bay. At least 1,836 individuals, mostly field laborers and migrant workers, drowned. Memorials took place Sept. 30 in West Palm Beach, one service for whites, another for non-whites. Markers remembering the victims stand in Woodlawn Cemetery and at Tamarind Avenue and 25th Street in West Palm Beach, near the Belle Glade Public Library and in Martin County's Port Mayaca cemetery.
Formed off Africa
The storm originated as a tropical wave off the coast of Africa before hitting Guadeloupe Sept. 12 and moving through the Virgin Islands. A day later it made a direct strike on Puerto Rico, killing more than 300 people, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and became known as the San Felipe II Hurricane. From Sept. 14-15, it traveled through the Bahama Islands. At about 6:15 p.m. Sept. 16, it made landfall between Jupiter and Boca Raton. "A storm surge around 10 feet with waves likely as high as 20 feet crashed into the barrier islands including Palm Beach," NOAA reports.
The storm then traveled over northern Florida, eastern Georgia and the Carolinas. It "moved inland over Virginia and became extratropical over Pennsylvania and the Great Lakes."
Few were prepared. "For several days last week we were warned that a terrific hurricane was approaching the east coast, but as this city has heretofore escaped these terrible storms up to the present time, we did not take it too seriously," wrote J.K. Williamson of the law offices of Williamson & Cain, West Palm Beach, in a letter dated Sept. 22, 1928, at the county historical society. "However, we did take precautions to nail up garages and awnings."
Unlike some other areas, reconstruction in Palm Beach following the storm began quickly.
"The spirit of restoration seized everyone here, and with a will that is surprising the most rapid progress has been made," reported the Sept. 29, 1928, Palm Beach Post.
"There were several folks out fishing on the [Rainbow] pier just as though nothing had happened in these parts," wrote "Dudley" in the Sept. 28, 1928, Palm Beach Independent.
Palm Beach Mayor Barclay H. Warburton placed the total structural damage at $735,000, according to the Post. Ocean Boulevard damage was estimated at $1 million and utility damage at $475,000.
By Dec. 1, the island was ready for winter visitors, according to the Dec. 2, 1928, New York Times.
"New roofs have replaced those blown off by the storm ... walls and floors and have been repaired, new glass is in the windows, and even the trees and shrubs are making a heroic effort to come back," the paper reported. "Parts of the Ocean Boulevard carried away by tons of water swept up by the gale have not been repaired and it will take time to restore to Palm Beach the glory of its gardens of a year ago, the shrubs, vines, hedges and trees which lined streets and sheltered homes and public buildings. The bridges are all open to traffic. The one which crosses Lake Worth at Royal Palm Way is having a few finishing touches on the West Palm Beach approach and will need a few new electric lights. The south bridge, which crosses at the Bath and Tennis Club, and the Florida East Coast Railway bridge have no obstruction.
"Of the two oldest buildings in Palm Beach, the Royal Poinciana Hotel and the Beach Club, Colonel E.R. Bradley's famous casino, the latter suffered no damage. The Poinciana, the largest frame hotel in the world, stretching for a quarter of a mile along the lakefront, was badly shaken, but a concerted demand from its former patrons led to the decision to open the south wing for the usual season, and hundreds of rooms, instead of thousands, will be available.
"An addition has been built to the dining room of the Breakers Hotel on the oceanfront, and repairs to the portion damaged by the hurricane will be completed for the opening of its season on Dec. 10, a few days earlier than usual."
Work proceeded on seven new buildings and more than 20 new houses, mostly on the South End.
Restaurants, including the La Chaumiere on Australian Avenue, the Flamingo in Phipps Plaza and Gabrielle in Via Parigi, reopened.
St. Edward Catholic Church and The Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea faced minimal damage, according to a news report.
The hurricane of 1928 resulted in changes in how the U.S. government managed the lake and the Everglades. The near-30-foot-high, 140-mile long Herbert Hoover dike was built around the lake. Later came the creation of canals, lakes and pumping stations to carry water to the sea and convert swamps to farmland and developments. Building codes also improved.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers aims to repair the dike, which state consultants have called in "grave and imminent danger" of breaching in spots and flooding neighboring towns and farmers' fields. A test panel wall recently passed inspection.