1928 Okeechobee Hurricane

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1928 Okeechobee Hurricane
Hurricane San Felipe Segundo
Category 5 hurricane ( SSHS)
Aftermath in West Palm Beach, Florida

Aftermath in West Palm Beach, Florida
Formed September 6, 1928
Dissipated September 20, 1928
160  mph (260  km/h) (1-minute sustained)
Lowest pressure ≤929  mbar ( hPa)
Damage $100 million (1928  USD) $800 million (2005 USD)
Fatalities 4,075+
Lesser Antilles, Guadeloupe, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Bahamas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Eastern Seaboard
Part of the
1928 Atlantic hurricane season

The Okeechobee Hurricane or Hurricane San Felipe Segundo was a deadly hurricane that struck the Leeward Islands, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and Florida in September of the 1928 Atlantic hurricane season. It was the first recorded hurricane to reach Category 5 status on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale in the Atlantic basin; as of 2006, it remains the only recorded hurricane to strike Puerto Rico at Category 5 strength, and one of the ten most intense ever recorded to make landfall in the United States.

The hurricane caused devastation throughout its path. As many as 1,200 people were killed in Guadeloupe. Puerto Rico was struck directly by the storm at peak strength, killing at least 300 and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. In south Florida at least 2,500 were killed when storm surge from Lake Okeechobee breached the dike surrounding the lake, flooding an area covering hundreds of square miles. In total, the hurricane killed at least 4,075 people and caused around $100 million ($800 million in 2005 US dollars) in damages over the course of its path.

Storm history

Storm path
Storm path

The storm was first observed 900 miles (1450 km) to the east of Guadeloupe on September 10 by the S.S. Commack. At the time, this was the most easterly report of a tropical cyclone ever received through ship's radio. A Cape Verde-type hurricane, hurricane analysis in the 1990s determined the storm likely formed four days prior between the Cape Verde Islands and the coast of Africa.

As the storm neared the Caribbean, it was already a Category 3 hurricane. On September 12 it passed over Guadeloupe and then south of the other Leeward Islands; Guadeloupe reported a pressure of 27.76  inHg (940  mbar), and a ship just south of St. Croix in the United States Virgin Islands reported it as an even stronger storm with a pressure of 27.50 inHg (931 mbar). On the 13th the storm struck Puerto Rico directly as a Category 5 hurricane, allegedly packing winds of 160  mph (260 km/h); reliable reports from San Juan placed the wind speed at 125  knots (145 mph, 230 km/h), and a report from Guayama placed the pressure at 27.65 inHg (936 mbar).

The 160 mph (260 km/h) wind measurement from Puerto Rico was taken by a cup anemometer in San Juan, 30 miles (50 km) north of the storm's centre, which measured 160 mph (260 km/h) sustained winds three hours before the peak wind speed was reached; however, the instrument was destroyed soon after and could not be calibrated. This unverified reading was the strongest wind measurement ever reported for an Atlantic hurricane up until that time; not until Hurricane Dog of 1950 were stronger winds officially measured in an Atlantic storm, although some unmeasured storms like the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane may have been stronger. Because of this measurement, the Okeechobee storm is considered to be the first hurricane in the Atlantic basin ever to reach Category 5 intensity, the highest possible rating on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale; although it is virtually certain that earlier hurricanes had achieved this strength (a likely candidate is the Great Havana Hurricane of 1846), none had ever had their winds or pressure recorded properly.

The hurricane was also extremely large as it crossed Puerto Rico. Hurricane-force winds were measured in Guayama for 18 hours; since the storm is estimated to have been moving at 13 mph (21 km/h), the diameter of the storm's hurricane winds was estimated very roughly to be 234 miles (376 km).

After leaving the Caribbean, the hurricane moved across the Bahamas as a strong Category 4 hurricane. It continued to the west-northwest, and made landfall in southern Florida on the evening of September 16. Atmospheric pressure at landfall was measured at 929 mbar (hPa) and winds "in excess" of 150 mph (240 km/h). The eye passed ashore in Palm Beach County near West Palm Beach, then moved directly over Lake Okeechobee.

The hurricane's path turned northeast as it crossed Florida, taking it across northern Florida, eastern Georgia, and the Carolinas on September 19. It then moved inland and merged with a low-pressure system around Toronto on the 20th.


Storm Deaths by Region
Region Deaths Locale Deaths
and Bahamas
1575 Martinique 3
Guadeloupe 600–1200
Montserrat 42
Puerto Rico 312
Bahamas 18
United States 2500+ Florida 2500+
Total 4075+

Leeward Islands

The hurricane moved directly over the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean, strengthening as it did so. On the island of Dominica winds were clocked at 24 mph (39 km/h); there were no reports of damages. In Martinique, even further south of the storm's path, there were three fatalities. Guadeloupe received a near-direct hit from the storm, apparently with little warning; the death toll there was 600–1200, and damage reports relayed through Paris indicated "great destruction" on the island. Montserrat, just north of the storm's centre, was warned in advance of the storm but still suffered £150,000 (1928 UKP) in damages and 42 deaths; Plymouth and Salem were devastated and crop losses caused near-starvation conditions before relief could arrive. The storm passed to the south of the islands of St. Kitts and St. Croix, which suffered heavy damages to property and crops but no reported fatalities. Damage reports from elsewhere in the Leeward Islands are not available.

Puerto Rico

The island of Puerto Rico received the worst of the storm's winds when the hurricane moved directly across the island at Category 5 strength. The island knew of the storm's approach well ahead of time; by about 36 hours in advance all police districts were warned and radio broadcasts provided constant warnings to ships. Effective preparation is credited for the relatively low death toll of 312, and amazingly not a single ship was lost at sea in the vicinity of Puerto Rico. By comparison, the weaker 1899 Hurricane San Ciriaco killed approximately 3,000 people.

Property damage on the island from winds and rain, however, was catastrophic. The northeast half of the island received winds in excess of Category 3 strength, with hurricane-force winds lasting for as long as 18 hours. At least 10 inches (250 mm) of rain was dropped over the entire island, with much greater amounts of nearly 30 inches (750 mm) being received in some areas. Official reports stated that "several hundred thousand" people were left homeless, and property damages were estimated at $50 million ($400 million in 2005 US dollars).

The storm is remembered in Puerto Rico as the San Felipe Hurricane because the eye of the cyclone made landfall on the Christian feast day of Saint Philip; the Latin American custom, since the Spanish colonial era began in 1492, was to name hurricanes upon their arrival after Catholic religious feast days. It was named "Segundo", Spanish for "the Second", because of another destructive "Hurricane San Felipe" which struck Puerto Rico on that very same day 52 years earlier.


The eye of the hurricane passed just south of Grand Bahama as a strong Category 4 hurricane, again causing very heavy damage. According to a firsthand account from the island, it was the worst storm in memory to strike the area. As in Puerto Rico, however, authorities in the Bahamas were aware of the hurricane's passage well ahead of time, and preparations minimized the loss of life in the islands. The only report of fatalities was from a sloop lost at sea in the vicinity of Ambergris Cay with 18 on board.

South Florida

Coastal damage in Florida near the point of landfall was catastrophic. Miami, well south of the point of landfall, escaped with very little damage; Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale suffered only slight damages. Northward, from Pompano Beach to Jupiter, buildings suffered serious damage from the heavy winds and 10 ft (3 meter) storm surge, which was heaviest in the vicinity of Palm Beach; total coastal damages were estimated as "several million" dollars. Because of well-issued hurricane warnings, residents were prepared for the storm, and the loss of life in the coastal Palm Beach area was only 26.

Aftermath of the hurricane in southern Florida
Aftermath of the hurricane in southern Florida

Inland, the hurricane wreaked much more widespread destruction along the more heavily populated coast of Lake Okeechobee. Residents had been warned to evacuate the low ground earlier in the day, but after the hurricane did not arrive on schedule, many thought it had missed and returned to their homes. When the worst of the storm crossed the lake — with winds measured on the ground at around 140  mph (225  km/h) — the south-blowing wind caused a storm surge to overflow the small dike that had been built at the south end of the lake. The resulting flood covered an area of hundreds of square miles with water that in some places was over 20 ft (6 m) deep. Houses were floated off of their foundations and dashed to pieces against any obstacle they encountered. Most survivors and bodies were washed out into the Everglades where many of the bodies were never found. As the rear eyewall passed over the area, the flood reversed itself, breaking the dikes along the northern coast of the lake and causing a similar but smaller flood.

Approximate area of the flood
Approximate area of the flood

Floodwaters persisted for several weeks, greatly impeding attempts to clean up the devastation. Burial services were quickly overwhelmed, and many of the bodies were placed into mass graves. Around 75% of the fatalities were migrant farm workers, making identification of both dead and missing bodies very difficult; as a result of this, the count of the dead is not very accurate. The Red Cross estimated the number of fatalities as 1,836, which was taken as the official count by the National Weather Service for many years; older sources usually list 3,411 as the total count of fatalities, including the Caribbean. However, in 2003 this was revised as "at least" 2,500, making the Okeechobee hurricane the second-deadliest natural disaster in United States history behind the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 (as of 2004).

Thousands of people were left homeless in Florida; property damage was estimated at $25 million ($200 million in 2005 US dollars). It is estimated that if a storm like this were to strike in modern times (the year 2003), it would cause $18.7 billion in damages. However, a levee breach of this kind is unlikely to occur again because of the much larger Herbert Hoover Dike that now contains the waters of Lake Okeechobee.

Southeast and Mid-Atlantic

Limited damage reports are available for the United States outside of southern Florida. The storm caused flooding in North Carolina and brought near-hurricane-force winds and a 7 foot (2.1 m) storm surge to the Norfolk area. Nonetheless, most sources agree that the hurricane caused only minimal damage in these areas.


Racial issues

In Florida, although the hurricane destroyed everything in its path with impartiality, the death toll was by far highest in the economically poor areas in the low-lying ground right around Lake Okeechobee. Around 75% of the fatalities were from migrant farm workers, most of whom were black. Black workers did most of the cleanup, and the few caskets available for burials were mostly used for the bodies of whites; other bodies were either burned or buried in mass graves. Burials were segregated, and the only mass gravesite to receive a memorial contained only white bodies. The inequity has caused further racial friction that still exists today.

Improved building codes

In the aftermath of the hurricane in coastal Florida, it became apparent that well-constructed buildings with shutters had suffered practically no damage from winds that caused serious structural problems to lesser buildings. Buildings with well-constructed frames, and those made of steel, concrete, brick, or stone were largely immune to winds, and the use of shutters prevented damage to windows and the interior of the buildings. Coming on the heels of the 1926 Miami Hurricane where a similar pattern had been noticed, one lasting result of the 1928 storm was improved building codes throughout south Florida. The result is that later storms of similar intensity, such as the 1947 Fort Lauderdale Hurricane, caused substantially less damage than the hurricanes of the 1920s.

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