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Nancy Smith

Florida's Definitive Hurricane

March 1, 2010 - 6:00pm

Hurricanes have written a large, violent and costly chapter in Florida history.

The big storms have created barrier islands and wiped them out. Overnight. They've ruined crops, dashed dreams, turned boardwalks into tinder.

Some 488 of the storms have slammed into Florida since they first were recorded in 1851. That's more than any other state in the nation. They claimed the lives of 10,272 people -- nearly a quarter of them in the big Hurricane of 1928.

In fact, probably none had a greater impact on Florida than the Hurricane of 1928.

In 1928, there was no TV, no National Weather Service, no Hurricane Hunter aircraft. Residents of the heavily populated shore towns on Lake Okeechobee had been warned to evacuate low ground earlier in the day. But, when the storm didn't arrive on schedule, many people thought it had missed them. They returned to their homes.

When the worst of the storm crossed the lake -- with ground winds measured at 140 mph -- the south-blowing wind caused a storm surge that sent water in Lake Okeechobee overflowing the small dike that had been built at the south end of the lake. The resultant flood covered hundreds of square miles, washing survivors and bodies deep into the Everglades. Many of the estimated 1,900 bodies were never found. When the rear eyewall passed over the lake, the flood went into reverse, breaking the dikes along Okeechobee's northern coast. Ultimately, 1,600 of the bodies recovered -- mostly migrant farm workers -- were buried in a mass grave at Port Myacca.

To prevent a recurrence of the horror of that storm, plus the similar Great Miami Hurricane of 1926, the Florida Legislature created the Okeechobee Flood Control District. This district was authorized to cooperate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in all flood control matters.

President Herbert Hoover inspected the area personally and led the charge to bring in new and better building codes. So determined was he to make a difference that he convinced the Army Corps to draft a plan for the construction of floodway channels, control gates and levees along Lake Okeechobee's shores. Finally, to prevent another disaster like the Great Hurricane of 1928, to conserve water, preserve fish and wildlife and prevent saltwater intrusion, the Herbert Hoover Dike was built.

Hurricanes in the last decade -- from Ivan to Charlie to Wilma -- have cost the state virtually all of its wind-damage insurers: a significant effect on Florida. But many historians still insist even the Category 5 Hurricane Andrew, which devastated South Miami-Dade County in 1992 and caused $40.7 billion in damage -- including claims that led to the bankruptcy and closure of 11 insurance agencies -- nevertheless did not have the profound effect on the region that the 1928 hurricane had.

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