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