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Posted on Sun, Jun. 23, 2002
KILLER 'CANE: The Deadly Hurricane of 1928. Robert Mykle. Cooper Square. 236 pages. $26.95.
Swept away one dreadful day in 1928
BY ARNOLD MARKOWITZ
Come back to Sunday, Sept. 16, 1928, to Victor Thirst's house in a Lake Okeechobee community called Sebring Farms. There are 63 of us hiding in the attic, but the hurricane has us now. The flood is coming through the ceiling below. The house is afloat, being bashed against a road embankment. Charles Thomas axes an escape hole through the roof, but most of us won't escape.
''The house turned and tilted, and one last time a wave lifted it up and it came down on the raised roadbed and broke apart. The sides buckled as the studs and slats broke like toothpicks with a chain of sickening snaps; the roof collapsed, trapping the 60 people left inside.''
In the most interesting and riveting parts of this story about the historic San Felipe-Okeechobee hurricane, Lake Worth author Robert Mykle brings to life the characters who settled and farmed the drained mucklands around Florida's big lake, and he draws us in to witness their deaths on that awful day. By the time the waters take them we know what they looked like, how they thought, what mattered to them. We feel an impulse to reach for their hands as they're swept away.
Is Mykle that good? Not even close; he is an amateur writer, painfully awkward at the keyboard. But when the storm and the characters are ready to tell the story themselves, Mykle has the good judgment to let them take over.
The locally published 1964 Cracker History of Okeechobee by survivor Lawrence Will caught Mykle's interest, which was renewed by a 1992 St. Petersburg Times interview with survivor Vernie Boots. Hurricanes were not formally named in those days. Those that hit Spanish-speaking lands were named after the saints on whose days they struck. This storm hit Puerto Rico on San Felipe's day, Sept. 13, and killed 300-plus people, after causing calamities on Guadeloupe, Montserrat and St. Croix. Next it would hit the Turks and the Bahamas.
Landfall in Florida was at Palm Beach. If the storm had broken up there, it still would have been important, but once it reached inland it became historic. People in the towns around Lake Okeechobee knew an intense storm was on the ocean, but the forecasts were conflicting and communications were primitive. Radios and telephones were scarce.
The storm was and still is one of the most intense hurricanes ever -- among those whose barometric pressures were recorded -- and it was a huge one, as rainy as it was windy. It hit Ponce, on Puerto Rico's southern coast, as a category 4 storm. On the opposite side of the mountainous island, a windspeed of 144 m.p.h. was recorded. It grew stronger as it whirled through the Bahamas. By the time its eye reached Lake Okeechobee, the hurricane was powerful enough to blow most of the water out of the shallow basin, which all the while was being flooded by the overflowing Kissimmee River to the north. What passed for a levee then -- a long pile of Everglades muck, four feet high -- simply dissolved.
The death toll, according to Red Cross reports, was 1,836 in the towns around the lake. That is almost certainly an underestimation. Many victims were farmhands from the Bahamas and Caribbean, people with no place to hide but the flimsy shanties in which they lived. They had no local families to report them missing or to search for them. Mykle could find only two black survivors of the storm.
He reckons the toll was nearer 2,400, second in U.S. history only to the Galveston hurricane catastrophe of 1900, and that's probably a reasonable guess. The surrounding swamps were flooded, and bodies were carried by wind and water far from where they were taken. By the time the flood receded many must have been buried beneath the muck by the hurricane itself. Add the lives lost on Guadeloupe, Martinique, Montserrat, St. Croix, Puerto Rico, the Turks and the Bahamas, and you get a range of estimated totals from 3,375 to 4,075 killed.
For all the importance of its story, Killer 'Cane is hard to read. The author is cliche-reliant, ungrammatical, a poor speller and has trouble with which way is east, which way west, when to say who, when to say that. Perhaps from newspapers and television, he learned the ghastly habit of making bad weather purposefully evil, as in this description of the flood seeping into Victor Thirst's house: ''spreading steadily like a malevolent amoeba, it crept across the kitchen floor.''
That's an extreme example, but its ilk during the first eight of 13 chapters may tempt you to toss the book. If so, jump to chapter nine. From there on, it's hard to stop reading.
Arnold Markowitz was The Herald's lead hurricane reporter from the 1970s to the early '90s. Click here for Robert Mykle's website. He lives in Lake Worth, Florida.