Category Archives: Florida history

Very famous Florida cows

A return to the Florida road trip…

Last week on Twitter, someone posed the question, “What small decision did you make last February that brought *all this* about?”

https://twitter.com/MeredithIreland/status/1363884153016446977
Karma’s a bitch.

With a shocking disregard for karma, I did two things: I announced I would visit a different state park at least once a month, and, in looking at the freelance writing and speaking gigs I had lined up for the coming year, told my husband I was confident 2020 would be my best year, financially speaking, since I started freelancing in 2003.

Shortly thereafter, the Florida State Park system closed all the parks for about six weeks (the parks closed on March 23 and reopened May 4) and most of my speaking gigs evaporated. I spent most of March, April, and May taking long walks, making hand sanitizer, and, yes, baking. I also made my own ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise, pressure washed the house, reorganized the back porch, made a 12-foot valance for the bedroom window, and spent a lot of time in the pool. I dipped my toes into World of Warcraft. Oh, and my husband and I – with the help of our community – bought a newspaper.

Here’s what I didn’t do: I didn’t write or speak about Florida. Somewhere towards June, some of my talks rematerialized as Zoom talks. I did finish a draft of my next Florida book for my editor, who has the patience of… well, someone editing a writer, and I plodded along on my fiction series.

But man, I missed my road trips. In late September, I wanted to see a different part of Florida, and the world started to realize we could navigate the pandemic somewhat safely, so we packed the car and headed for a long weekend in Ormond Beach. We carefully chose a hotel with separate a/c units for each room, packed hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes, and headed for the east coast.

I tried not to take it as an omen that a tropical storm formed over the state as we crossed Florida. We spent a delightfully cozy, wet days on the Atlantic, but hey, we’d arrived in a different part of the state, with a different body of water, and our room had a balcony fronting it.

In October, we tried again, for our anniversary. We chose an Air B&B above a barn, packed groceries, and looked forward to two nights on a farm in Vero Beach.

When our newspaper delivery driver called us in the middle of the night to tell us she’d had an accident in the delivery van, well, it wasn’t an omen, exactly… more par for the course for 2020.

When the calendar flipped to 2021, I wasn’t about to declare that 2021 would be better, or my year to travel, or any of those other karma-tempting, pandemic-inducing sentiments. But, slowly, the freelance assignments have started to return. In January, USA Today asked me to write about Florida road trips for their 10 Best website.

While I technically didn’t need to re-create my first assignment (Anna Maria Island to Fort Pierce, A1A north to Vero Beach, back to Clearwater, and through Pinellas to return to AMI), I think most people can understand the strong desire to get out of the house in 2021. An overnight bag went into the car, just in case we needed to spend the night somewhere, along with the (by now) standard sanitizer/masks/wipes combo pack.

overgrown mural at Shonda's Souvenir's in Florida – photo by Cathy Salustri
The deserted but ever-colorful Shonda’s Souvenirs has a new resident: a pair of osprey (not pictured, clearly)

I say “just in case” but I wasn’t kidding anyone: Once I had a paying reason to drive across Florida, I was getting a full road trip out of the deal. I saw scrub jays at Lake June-in-Winter, and not just a couple – for the first time in my life, I saw a sentinel scrub jay, which is exactly what it sounds like. I watched two osprey build a nest atop a colossal pineapple at Shonda’s Souvenirs. I soaked in every salty and oak-covered scrap of the innards of Florida.

That was day one. Day two brought me back to Lake Kissimmee State Park, where I once spent a petrified night convinced a serial killer was lurking outside my tent (spoiler alert: it was a family of sandhill cranes.) On this trip, I visited the 1876 cow camp exhibit, where volunteers re-enact life at a 19th-century Florida cow camp.

I normally don’t love re-enactments, but, again, this was for an assignment, and I felt duty-bound to check out the cow camp. We plodded along a serene, wooded trail to the camp, and I’m so glad we did.

The Florida cowboy – and Florida cattle – aren’t quite like Old West cowboys. They crack whips to control cattle, hence the “cracker” moniker. And Florida cows – the original Florida cows – have the honor of being the first cows in North America, brought her by Spanish conquistadors and raised by the ancestors of the Seminole Indians and early Euro-American settlers. The breed, Andalusian, still exists, and at Lake Kissimmee State Park you can visit their descendants, which, you have to admit, is pretty damn cool.

For a first road trip of the year, it served two purposes: One, I had the pleasure of traveling the backroads of Florida again, and two, those cows reminded me that, despite a pandemic and what amounted to a year off from Florida for me, Florida endures.

I can’t wait to get back on the road again.

The Great Miami Hurricane and COVID19

And yes, they are related.

For the past few weeks, I’ve thought a lot about the Hurricane of 1926 in Miami and how it relates to a global pandemic. 

The Hurricane of 1926 made landfall in Florida just before midnight on September 17, 1926. Most of the people in southeast Florida were new to the area (thanks, land boom!) and thus had never endured a hurricane but they hunkered down in their Miami homes as the first bands of the storm blew in from the Atlantic.

And then the eye passed over, and all was calm. Anxious to get out of their houses (if you’ve ever ridden out a hurricane you know the feeling), everyone went outside and checked on their neighbors and started clearing debris. 

U.S. National Weather Service Forecaster Richard Gray kept telling people that it wasn’t safe yet, to go inside, that the storm wasn’t over. But the people didn’t listen. The sky had cleared and the winds had all but come to a stop. Plus, they had work to do. They had destruction all around them, downed trees and construction debris everywhere (Miami and surrounding areas had quite a bit of construction happening at this time, again, yay, land boom.)

It must have felt vitally important to those folks that they do something. The storm had all but torn away all semblance of their normal lives, and they likely wanted to get back to normal as quickly as possible. How foolish was Gray, they must have thought, not to see that the storm had cleared. I have no proof of this, but I’m fairly certain at least one person probably suggested Gray was perpetrating a hoax to help get more money for National Weather Service funding come federal budget time. 

And so they left their homes and started clearing debris.

But after the eye comes, as every Floridian knows, the back side of the storm. And the back side of the storm is the worst part. When the second wave washed across Southeast Florida (literally; there was a 10-foot storm surge,) the people outside didn’t have time to seek adequate shelter. Gray had warned them, but there was no other warning before the winds picked up again and started blowing around all those downed trees and lumber from the first part of the hurricane. After the eye passed the and hurricane’s second half started, storm winds hurled those trees and lumber around at speeds of 155 MPH. 

The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 killed almost 400 people and injured more than 6,000 others. Damages totaled what would be, in today’s dollars, $164 billion. The storm damage propelled Florida into the Great Depression three years ahead of the rest of the country.

The Miami Hurricane didn’t only damage south Florida, however — it continued on to Pensacola, where it struck Florida again and raged for 20 hours on Sept. 20, destroying pretty much every wharf, building and boat in the city. After that, it finally made landfall a third time in Mobile, Alabama.

What gets me about this story is simple: They were warned. They were warned and they went outside anyway.

Smart Floridians know that the storm isn’t over just because the wind has stopped. Do with this story what you will, but me? I’m with Forecaster Gray, and I intend to ride out the rest of this storm in my house. 

Fact check me here

Hurricane ’17: The monster next time

When Lake Okeechobee levees broke during the Hurricane of 1928, thousands died. The “new” dike is now more than 80 years old — and in dire need of repair.

In 1928, black people were pretty much out of luck when it came to good jobs in Florida. They had, essentially, three choices: tapping pine trees for turpentine, working as servants to white folks, or farming the fields.

In addition to equality, Florida lacked a few other things — such as the inclination to do something when engineers raised the alarm that the mud levee around Lake Okeechobee was about to fail.

According to Eliot Kleinberg, author of Black Cloud: The Deadly Hurricane of 1928, government officials knew. They simply didn’t do anything about it.

“In 1926, a hurricane that smashed Miami washed out a portion of the dike and drowned hundreds. As in New Orleans, local politicians said the next time would be a catastrophe and a more solid barrier was needed. As in New Orleans, politicians were still talking about it when the next time came,” Kleinberg wrote the week after Katrina made landfall in New Orleans.

The predictions in 1926 of another disaster came true all too soon. 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.

Plans had been approved in the early 1920s to build a better dike. But the legislature never approved the money. After all, no one really lived down there, right? Just some black folks in Jim Crow Florida.

Survivors of 1928 Hurricane
A handwritten note on the back of this photo reads, “Colored girl sole survivor of family of seven.” viaLawrence E. Will Museum of the Glades

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.

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 it’s all ready to happen again.

The wall around Lake O creates a sense of foreboding. Perhaps it’s the water, the monster just out of sight, barely contained behind the dike; Zora Neale Hurston, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, says of the hurricane, “It woke up old Okeechobee and the monster began to roll in his bed.” Or perhaps it’s the surreal juxtaposition of poor migrant farm communities with ostentatious planters’ homes and the luscious fields of sugar cane that surround them.

Today, we call this the Everglades Agricultural Area, which produces an astounding amount of our country’s (heavily subsidized and wildly unhealthy) sugar, but the name doesn’t change the conditions. As it was 89 years ago, the EAA is peopled with minorities doing what they can to survive. In April, 1928, 500 people lived in Belle Glade (whose name means “belle of the swamp”); about 19,000 lived in Palm Beach County. The hurricane would kill almost 3,000 of those residents, or over 15 percent of the population. A report from the National Weather Service posits that 75 percent of those people were non-white migrant farm workers. Even those workers who had transport couldn’t escape the water that crashed over them.

Top:Damage And Flooding In Belle Glade Bottom:Smoke From Funeral Pyres
Top: Damage and flooding in Belle Glade. Bottom: Smoke from funeral pyres. via Lawrence E. Will Museum of the Glades

Lake Okeechobee is a 730-square-mile lake. Of all the freshwater lakes contained wholly within the United States borders, it is second only to Lake Superior in size. It’s about 30 miles wide by 33 miles across, which means you can fit the whole of Los Angeles inside the lake almost twice. Lake Okeechobee averages 9 feet deep, which means the state walled in 1.37 trillion gallons of water. That’s a lot — especially if you’re trying to outrun it when the levee breaks and there’s a storm raging all around you.

After the hurricane, newly elected President Herbert Hoover toured the area and vowed to build a better levee. He did, 143 miles in all, and that levee, made of dirt, has held.

Mostly.

The EAA (shown in green) comprises 700,000 acres planted mostly with sugarcane, which receives roughly $100 million in corporate welfare (also called subsidies or price supports) and does little to enhance the quality of life for the minorities working the fields.U.S. Geological Survey

The Herbert Hoover Dike is over 80 years old, and no one — not even the Army Corps of Engineers, infamous for making bad decisions about Florida’s environment (see: anything to do with the Kissimmee River and, well, all of the Everglades) — expects it to last much longer.

In 2006, the South Florida Water Management District commissioned an evaluation of the Herbert Hoover Dike. According to a Lloyd’s of London risk assessment of the lake, that report included a warning: “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.”

Although work started to repair the dike in the early part of the millennium, the ACOE doesn’t expect to finish repairs until 2025 at the earliest.

Right now, the ACOE focuses on culvert repair. These 32 culverts around the lake are not the same sort of smallish culverts we see near our homes; the culverts leading water out from Lake O have a much larger capacity than the average storm drain.

The levee itself doesn’t actually hold water that well; it does keep it from overflowing, but the levee was built using what we now know to be outdated engineering methods — dredges that allow for water to escape through seepage, although not in waves. Picture a heavy canvas bag: You can fill it with water, but it will let some drops pass through. Now, picture that on a larger scale, and you have the current state of the Herbert Hoover Dike.

Florida State Archives

Aside from fixing the culverts, spillways — designed to take the overflow of water so it doesn’t go over the top of the levee — are damaged and eroded. None of this is news. It’s why, last year, water management officials discharged water from Lake O into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers: It was that or risk killing people south of the lake. The water released, however, had so much fertilizer in it, it looked more like greenish coffee than water. That fertilizer comes from water pumped into the lake from communities along the lake’s south shore as well as farm and ranch runoff from points north. 

The ACOE says to finish repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike by 2022 — instead of 2025 — will require $800 million in this fiscal year’s budget. Governor Rick Scott asked the legislature for $200 million; state lawmakers refused. Earlier this month, Senator Bill Nelson wrote a letter to President Trump and asked him to expedite repairs. 

“This is a critical public safety project, and I encourage you to direct the Army Corps to complete it as quickly as possible,” Nelson wrote. He asked for $200 million a year to shave those three years off the repairs, which include culvert and spillway repairs. 

Although President Donald Trump verbally promised Governor Rick Scott the remaining $600 million, President Trump’s budget slashed the ACOE budget by $1 billion, which could mean lawmakers in other states will push back against giving any of the remaining pot to accelerate the dike repairs. 

Additionally, Governor Scott seems to be under the impression the repairs will allow the lake to hold more water and prevent more discharges along the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers, but both the ACOE and Audubon Florida say the repairs will not increase the capacity of the lake. 

No matter what the repairs do, they won’t do it until 2022 at the earliest. In the meantime, the people living south of the lake wait. And, when hurricanes come, these residents — 90 percent of whom are either black or Hispanic — hope for the best and fear the worst.

Welcome to Day One of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season. 

If you go:

Lawrence E. Will Museum of the Glades

530 S. Main St., Belle Glade

Wed.-Sat.: 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; 561-853-4443. museumoftheglades.org

Hurricane Andrew: 25 Years Later

The Miami History Center, 101 W. Flagler St., Miami

Through Jan. 15, 2018: Tues.-Sat.: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun.: 12-5 p.m., Opening reception June 1: 6-9 p.m. $10; members, free. 305-375-1492. historymiami.org

The area damaged by the 1928 Hurricane were then and are now predominantly peopled by minorities. Florida State Archives

This article appeared as the cover story of the June 1 Creative Loafing issue. Read it there.