(This is the fourth part of the chapter for Tour 13: Punta Rassa to West Palm Beach and around Lake Okeechobee. Read the third part here.)
While the sweet-toothed towns like Clewiston pave the road to Lake Okeechobee, the ring around the Lake itself (SR 80/ US 27/ SR 700/ US 98/ SR 700) has a mystique all its own. The wall keeping the water just out of sight, the possibility of crossing paths with a venomous pit viper, the unapologetic migrant farm worker communities juxtaposed with the odd colonial home lined with massive palms and green, sweeping lawns. The southern edge is littered with liquor stores, markets, and other hastily–lettered Spanish signs. No middle class exists. Those colonial homes are few and far enough between that you start to believe the ruling class barely exists, either, but sugar’s silent white hand remains constantly at work. It’s not just sugar that rules the day here – anything that grows enslaves the poorest class in these towns.
Consider Belle Glade. The name itself crowns this town “belle of the swamp,” but, in reality, Belle Glade has perhaps Florida’s most tragic history.
“Welcome to Belle Glade. Her soil is her fortune” one signs boasts, and that may be so – but not for the people living here. Of the town’s 17,500 people, 33 percent live below the poverty level. The town is comprised of 56 percent black people and 34 percent Hispanic. Along the road side we see more Spanish signs than English, and the predominant roadside industry seems a mix of taquerias and drive-through liquor stores. There are over 6,000 homes in Belle Glade, over half of which are single-family homes. As we drive through town, I find myself glancing towards the lake – or, more accurately, the dike keeping the lake from washing over these buildings.
Not that it couldn’t if it wanted to. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before.
Here’s the problem with putting houses down in this part of Florida: the land is low and wet, and no matter what humans try to do to make it higher and drier, it doesn’t work on a long-term basis. The Hurricane of 1928 offers the best example of this.
“At the beginning of the twentieth century, water simply flowed unimpeded from the lake’s south shore in a sheet, into the Everglades [… ] For the early settlers and farmers, that simply would not do. So between 1923 and 1925, the state built a 47-mile-long dike of earth. It was about five feet high. Twice in the next three years, it would be shown as useless as a dam made of tissue paper.
“In the early 1920s, commissioners of the Everglades Drainage District, founded in 1913, decided to build a more permanent dike around Lake Okeechobee. The plan was for work to start on the dike in 1927. It would be 110 to 130 feet wide at the base and 20 feet wide at the crest and stand 27 feet above sea level. They concluded that such a levee would resist hurricane-driven surge from the lake. But the legislature didn’t get around to approving the money for it.”
When the 1926 hurricane hit Florida, a low dirt dike burst at Moore Haven, a town of 1,200. Estimates say the water rose 17 feet, destroying the under-construction Glades County Courthouse. Officials buried the unidentifiable bodies in a mass county grave.
By September 1928, no one seemed to have learned from their mistakes. The dike situation had not improved. Nonetheless, area farms still flourished in the rich black muck. Heavy late-summer rains and storms dumped more water in the lake. When a hurricane made landfall on September 16, water dammed in Okeechobee had nowhere to go.
“It woke up Old Okeechobee and the monster began to roll in his bed,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God, a novel partially based on the 1928 storm.
The dikes did not hold. What followed was a precursor to Katrina: death of the poor black families on a massive scale. Forty miles inland, the hurricane reclaimed Florida, destroying the levee, obliterating entire towns, flooding farms, and killing thousands. The water had taken back the land, reshaping the topography of Florida’s lowest third.
Before human intervention, the natural system worked. Water flowed from the middle of the state at a shallow, slow pace down the meandering Kissimmee River. During the summer there was more of it; in the winter, less. Some water pooled in Lake Okeechobee; some went around, and still more flowed through. In late summer, heavier rains flooded the land south of the lake as well as the Kissimmee River’s flood plain. At the edge of the Everglades, the excess water drained into Florida Bay.
However efficiently it worked for the birds, trees, and fish, this system did not work for those who wanted to farm or sell the land under the water. Under that ever-moving pesky water was black gold: soil so rich from eons of wet, decaying plant and animal life that anything would grow in it. Under that water was land that could hold houses, shopping malls, and condominiums. The land failed to make anyone money while flooded with water, so why not change it – just a bit – to make it more efficient for humans?
The Everglades consists of not one but many unique, interdependent ecosystems. The Glades have more than a bunch of wet sawgrass: interspersed with the razor-sharp sedge you find hammocks of hardwood trees, mangrove islands, cypress swamp, freshwater prairies, and a patchwork of other communities. The one commonality these ecosystems all share is a persistent need for fresh water.
Tragedies rarely result from one single mis-step; more often than not, a series of poor choices lead to catastrophe. The 1928 tragedy south of Okeechobee came about because of not one but three bad decisions. Building a dike around Lake Okeechobee to contain the water proved less-than-prudent; altering the landscape so that the land surrounding and beneath the lake could be used for farm, cattle, and citrus compounded the problem; housing poor black farm workers to live on that newly-drained land completed the trifecta of bad decisions.
On September 16, 1928, these three decisions collided spectacularly.
“As the Category 4 monster raged westward, it saved its most crippling blow for the small farming communities that lined Lake Okeechobee‘s southern shore. Between Clewiston and Canal Point, 6,000 people lived and worked, and nearly half would perish before the light of day.”
Hurricane winds can bend a bicycle around a tree. They can lift a roof off a home. They can pick up cars. In 1928, the wind powered a mighty wave of water through a wall supposed to contain it.
“A five foot muck dike, built to hold back Lake Okeechobee’s waves during summer rains, crumbled in the frenzied waters, unleashing a storm surge with the fury of a tidal wave.
“‘Nobody seemed to be too much alarmed,’ said [Frank] Stallings, 20 then and boarded up with his family in their Belle Glade grocery store, ‘until the water started coming in’.
“One family strapped the children to a fallen tree. Some in Belle Glade rushed up the water tower, kicking at anyone who got in their way. In the farming communities surrounding South Bay and Pahokee, thousands of field workers hunkered down in flimsy homes, many doomed to drown.”
Today we know those were category four hurricane winds that pushed the water around in the shallow lake, beating it to a boil. The water in the lake rose 10 feet above the lake level, bursting through almost 22 miles of levee on the southeast side of the mighty lake. The wall of water rampaged through the town, turning houses upside down, washing them away, and drowning those in its path. There was no escape; the water fiercely and wholly reclaimed the land and swallowed towns upon it.
Even today, no one knows how many people died. The first number, 225, quickly grew to 400.
“Ugly death was simply everywhere,” Charles Young, a Glades resident who helped collect the dead, would later recall. The work was one part rescue, most parts body recovery. Young found the bodies of a family, including a dead man clutching his stilled child. Another rescuer, Festus Stalling, found the bloated body of a little girl, a toddler wearing a bracelet.
“A month earlier, she had proudly shown him the bracelet, a gift for her second birthday. He grabbed her by that arm, lifted her up, and added her to the pile of death.”
Some bodies were given a burial in a coffin, but not many. The Florida Health Department officially claimed just over 1,800 dead, but historians put the toll higher. Most of the dead were black farm workers. In 1920s Florida, an unidentified black person didn’t get a coffin, especially not with the weight of dead bodies crushing relief efforts.
No records exist of the farm owners dying in the storm, perhaps because they lived elsewhere.
Relief workers stacked bodies in piles and burned them, burying the remains in mass graves. At some sites, they took the time to count the corpses. At others, workers were too overwhelmed to keep track. Most black survivors and many white ones never found out what happened to their friends and relatives.
The little girl with the bracelet? She was thrown onto a funeral pyre, her body burned and buried with the others. Festus Stalling never forgot her. Memories of that child – and the many other dead – stayed with him until he died, his son Frank said.
“He said the hardest thing he ever had to do,” Frank said years later, “was throw that little girl’s body on that fire.”
Today, the majority of homes and stores by the lake line the road ringing the lake, less than a half mile from those levees.