The Okeechobee Hurricane: A First-Hand Account

A few years ago, I wrote a brief piece for Gunster’s firm newsletter, which focused on a letter written by firm founder John Kenneth Williamson soon after the Okeechobee Hurricane hit our community. As today is the 85th anniversary of the storm’s devastating impact, I am posting that piece here, with a few minor revisions. 

In the late 1920s, South Florida’s boom years came to an abrupt end. As a Palm Beach County real estate attorney, John Kenneth Williamson was at the center of the economic crash. Williamson was also a first-hand witness to the hurricane that was so emblematic of the crash’s impact upon South Florida – the Okeechobee Hurricane, which struck Palm Beach County on September 16, 1928.

The storm is most remembered for the devastation that resulted when it washed away the primitive dikes then surrounding Lake Okeechobee, violently flooding surrounding communities. Author Zora Neale Hurston famously writes that the hurricane “woke up old Okeechobee and the monster began to roll in his bed . . . [u]nder its multiplied roar could be heard a mighty sound of grinding rock and timber and a wail.” But, as described in a letter written by Williamson on September 22, 1928, the storm also had a devastating impact upon the Palm Beaches.

Williamson writes that he had been “warned that a terrific hurricane was approaching the East coast” but that “as this city has heretofore escaped these terrible storms, [he] did not take it too seriously.” According to Williamson, the wind increased as he and his family ate lunch on the Sunday that the storm hit, but that they still “sat down with smiles on [their] faces.” As the wind intensified and the rain increased, Williamson’s home began to flood – “we must have mopped up at least three barrels of water in the course of the afternoon”, he recollects.

As the wind grew even stronger, an upstairs window broke, injuring Williamson’s daughter. Recognizing the risk presented by an absent window during a hurricane of this intensity, Williamson “grabbed a rug and endevoured to nail it over the window to keep a suction from being created.” Looking outside as winds reached “at least 130 miles per hour,” Williamson could see “roofs coming off and all sorts of missiles sailing through the air” and “[t]iles showered around like snow.” The family had lunch during the calm eye of the storm, sensing “that the big blow was yet to come.” When the storm roared back upon the Williamson home, “four more windows crashed in.” The family finally “gave up” one room “as a bad job and simply held the door for an hour or two.” Within two and a half hours following the eye’s passing, the winds began to calm.

Williamson also describes the storm’s aftermath:

“You cannot imagine the terrible property damage. I think it is even greater than the Dayton flood, although it will not take as long to replace, as there is no mud. We assume that Palm Beach is badly wrecked, but everyone is hammering and nailing now and we will soon be under roof. I have work constantly in the purchasing department of the Red Cross since Monday. We have purchased practically $200,000 worth of stuff this week, largely bedding, clothing, foodstuffs, gasoline, etc.”

“The property damage, however, is a small matter compared to the death rate in the Everglades. It is now estimated between 1500 and 2000, with over 1000 bodies already recovered. Conditions there are terrible – even worse than the war in France. You cannot imagine the awful tales of decayed bodies floating around there. The workers are being forced out there at the point of a gun and all sorts of means are being used to keep epidemics from breaking out. The whole country from 20 miles back of West Palm Beach to the lake is submerged.”

As we look back today, 85 years after the Okeechobee Hurricane tore through our county, we should pause for a moment to remember those who lost their lives in the storm. This anniversary should also remind us of the risks we accept in order to live in paradise, and the importance of building civic bonds strong enough to carry us through the most challenging circumstances.

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