Ninety years ago, one of the deadliest hurricanes hit Florida, far exceeding the destruction cause by recent SWFL natural disasters, such as Hurricane Irma .
The 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane did a lot of damage — and ultimately presented one of South Florida’s biggest issues: How does the state make sure Lake Okeechobee never overflows and kills thousands, again?
The original plan was to drain the southern shores of Lake Okeechobee so the swampy land could be used for farming, attracting people to move to the area.
Locks and levees were constructed to prevent flooding and control the lake levels, but once the hurricane hit in 1928 that didn’t matter.
“There was roughly a thousand people living here at the time, so imagine one out of every fifth person in Moore Haven lost their life,” Butch Wilson said, who works at the Clewiston Museum, which seeks to preserve the heritage of Hendry County. “You would have as many as six bodies tied to row boat. And they could row up to the locks here and they would off load the bodies.”
Thousands of people drowned. The hardest hit areas were Clewiston, Belle Glade, South Bay, and Pahokee.
In the small town of Pahokee, two sisters who survived that hurricane shared their story.
“Salvatores have been here a hundred years last month,” Lucille Salvatore Herron said. “I could close my eyes right now and see every bit of it. I was two years and four and a half months and it’s hard to believe anybody could remember that.”
The experience was traumatic for Lucille, 92, who at a young age didn’t contemplated death and destruction.
"It was blowing so hard,” Iris Salvatore Hodges said, who survived the storm with her sister, Lucille. “I can remember like needles hitting your face.”
Their parents kept their composure during the storm, at least in the eyes of their children. “We were safe in their arms,” Lucille said.
All five kids including their parents, Carmen and Ella, survived the Okeechobee Hurricane.
The Okeechobee Hurricane came off the Atlantic coast hitting West Palm Beach first, before moving through the Belle Glades nearby Lake Okeechobee.
There was little to no warning when the hurricane hit.
“You had very little time to react,” Butch Wilson said, who volunteers at Clewiston Museum. “Many people were caught off guard.”
Over a mud dike, the wind propelled the waves into a deadly force.
“Imagine water rising up 11 feet, that’s twice my height,” Wilson said.
The storm took the lives of thousands with estimates ranging from 1,770 to 2,300. Corpses were littered on the ground with an overpowering stench of death that permeated over the area. The parents of the sisters took some of the bodies to Port Mayaca and West Palm Beach in their truck.
“They must’ve been terrorized,” Lucille said, recounting the bundle of bodies squeezed into the vehicle.
The Salvatores express gratitude for their good fortune. They easily could have lost each other. The house was destroyed by the natural disaster. If they were dismayed, the family did not let their feelings affect them, as they rebuilt the house soon after the storm.
They still live in that house today.
“I wake up everyday and go, ‘thank god the house is still here.’ Every time they talk about a storm I go ‘Dear god, I know it’s selfish to ask you to save it one more time, oh my goodness,’” Lucille said.
In that house, another memory was spared — letters written between their parents in the late 1910s, during World War I. “The papers are still there and you can still read them,” Lucille said. “They didn’t get wet, and that’s a miracle in itself.”
“I was surprised it didn’t float away because most everything was gone,” Iris, 95, said.
The Salvatores are known as pioneers of Pahokee.
Hundreds of people who died in the area during the Okeechobee Hurricane were placed in unmarked graves. Bodies became unrecognizable days after being found in the water. The bodies immediately had to be buried to prevent disease.
One of the mass graves is in Port Mayaca, in honor of those who died. Another is at the Ortona Cemetery in Moore Haven.
A statue commemorating the hurricane was built in Belle Glade in 1987. After the hurricane, the state created the Okeechobee Flood Control District with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Herbert Hoover Dike you see today was completed in the 1960s with flood prevention at the top of mind, minimizing the chances there will be a recurrence of the 1928 natural disaster.
Lucille and Iris hope that somebody will be one of their descendants. Someone who will continue to pass along their legacy and stories.
“Before daddy died he said, ‘Remember, you don’t own this land -- God has let you use it all these years,’” Lucille said, looking in the distance as her green eyes twinkle. “Some day, somebody else will be on it.”