A storm of memories
By JEFF KLINKENBERG, Times staff writer
On the day hell came to Lake Okeechobee, Vernie Boots built himself a windmill. He found a boat propeller, impaled it on a fat nail and pointed the toy at the rising wind. He was 14.
"A kid," he says, "don't have a lick of sense. I was having fun." The propeller whirled fast enough to burn a groove in the nail. The big blow was coming. One of the biggest blows of all time was on its way.
On Sept. 16, 1928, the only thing between the wood frame Boots home and the massive lake was 300 feet and a 4-foot dike constructed of mud. When dawn broke, and the hurricane had passed, his father and mother and brother were gone, dead by drowning. So were more than 1,800 other people. He and two brothers survived the storm by clinging to debris and floating two miles into the Everglades.
"I can remember everything," the 78-year-old Belle Glade resident says now. "Just ask me."
After the storm
In 1992, the lake is hidden behind the massive Hoover Dike, which means you never glimpse Okeechobee while you drive along U.S. 441 on a day so hot the air shimmers and shakes like a ghost dancing on a barbecue.
Love bugs pepper the windshield like shotgun pellets. Turkey vultures, the sentinels of the Everglades, patrol the blue and gray skies. Possums and armadillos lie pancake flat on the road, vulture fast food. The Everglades -- and Lake Okeechobee -- is one hard land. (Lake Okeechobee's future)
Down the highway from Blue-Gill RV Park and Bob's Big Bass Camp, I see the turnoff at Port Mayaca. I follow the pavement up the 40-foot Hoover Dike and stop at the top. Then I gasp. Whenever I get a look at the lake I gasp. It's like seeing the ocean after a long time spent living inland.
Within the borders of the United States, only Lake Michigan is larger than Okeechobee, the Seminole word for "Big Water." It covers almost 700 square miles of South Central Florida. You could float two counties the size of Pinellas on the lake and still have room to fish.
Laughing gulls fly headlong into a 20-knot wind that slaps tops off waves high enough to invite surfing. Gazing at this big, turbulent lake -- the other side, 45 miles distant, is beyond sight -- I can easily imagine being seasick. I'm glad I'm standing on the dike instead of plugging for bass or hanging onto the roof of a house knocked down by a hurricane. Vernie Boots, God bless him, had to hang on all night in 1928.
Lake Okeechobee can be a killer.
Everyone knows its potential now. In the three decades after the storm, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed a 150-mile dike around the lake. In places, the dike is 45 feet high and 150 feet wide. Built out of mud, sand, grass, rock and concrete, and named after President Herbert Hoover, the dike has withstood a handful of hurricanes, though none as powerful as the 1928 storm that blew across the lake with estimated 140 mph winds.
Is the dike safe?
In the event of a powerful hurricane, to take pressure off the dike, water would be pumped in large volume out of the lake through the wide St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee canals and into the sea. Even so, the South Florida Water Management District, which regulates the lake, says it's remotely possible a very large hurricane could overwhelm the dike.
The Corps says it's unlikely.
"We think the dike would do fine in a big storm," says Marlyn Harn, who maintains it for the Corps. "We're confident it would do the job."
So are other people who have chosen to build homes and farms and ranches within the shadow of the dike. The dike has allowed agriculture, especially, to prosper. Years ago, land south of the lake was swamp. Water flowed from the Kissimmee River into Lake Okeechobee and into the swamp that became the river of grass that was the Everglades.
Thanks to the dike, and other flood control structures, more than 700,000 acres of Everglades have been converted from swamp to sugar cane and tomatoes and beans and melons. The Everglades Agricultural Area, as it is formally known, is sometimes called the nation's winter vegetable basket.
But there's a price for the prosperity. The South Everglades is virtually cut off from the Kissimmee River and the lake. Without a natural water flow, the Everglades no longer functions the way it should.
The 1928 hurricane, and what resulted from that hellish day, changed the way America's greatest wetland wilderness, the Everglades, was managed. It changed the ecology of a beautiful natural system.
It changed lives.
Ask Vernie Boots, people here say when they hear you're interested in knowing about the 1928 hurricane and Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades: Go ahead and ask him.
So I do.
"The Everglades ain't what they used to be ," says Boots, when I call him at the Belle Glade hydraulics firm where he builds machinery though he is long past retirement age.
His parents, William Henry and Mattie Mae Boots, moved to Lake Okeechobee in 1916, tried Arizona for a while and returned to the lake for good in 1925. The Boots family grew beans, potatoes and cabbages outside of Belle Glade in a community known as Sebring Farms. Roads, few and crude, were built from mud and sand. Some folks found it easier to get around by boat.
For many free-spirited people, though, life on the lake represented a kind of heaven. Only incompetent fools went hungry. Practically anything grew in the rich black muck surrounding the lake. Adjacent woods and swamps were blessed with deer and turkey. In the winter, ducks by the millions landed in lake marshes. A good man with a shotgun could fill a sack in an hour. A good man with a net or cane pole could cover the bottom of a skiff with largemouth bass, bream and channel catfish before high noon.
Today, the lake is polluted by storm runoff from farms and cities dotting the lake. A good angler can still catch bass, but it's work. The marshes no longer produce such impressive numbers of ducks. Fertilizers, rushing into the lake, have encouraged an abnormal growth of cattails, which crowd out duck-friendly vegetation.
Away from the lake, some woods have been logged to make way for development. Swamp has been drained for farmland. No wonder Vernie Boots tells people the Everglades has changed.
Many things, of course, have changed for the better around Lake Okeechobee. There are hospitals, schools and libraries in the growing cities of Belle Glade (17,700 people), Pahokee (10,200), Clewiston (6,100), Okeechobee (5,000), South Bay (3,600) and Moore Haven (1,400). Modern paved roads crisscross the land. In 1992, evacuation at least would be possible in the event of a hurricane. In 1928, evacuation was difficult if not impossible.
Like many September storms, the '28 hurricane was born in the Atlantic Ocean. Winds were howling more than 100 mph when it slammed Puerto Rico, killed hundreds of people, and took aim at South Florida.
Mass communications were unsophisticated, and many Lake Okeechobee residents were unaware of the coming danger. There were no space satellites to pinpoint storm locations, and no hurricane hunter airplanes to actually fly into the black clouds and collect data. Most information was gathered by ships at sea. Information frequently was wrong or obsolete within hours.
On Friday, Sept. 14, word reached Okeechobee about a possible hurricane. Some people made preparations. Some even moved to higher ground. The Boots clan did. They traveled to South Bay, where a big seaworthy barge was moored in a canal. The barge was thought to be the best place to ride out a hurricane even if the dike burst.
When the hurricane failed to arrive as the experts predicted, people headed home. They went home and looked at the lake and whistled. Heavy rains in August had swelled the lake.
What if a big storm hit?
"There was a little dike, maybe about 4 feet tall, by our house," Vernie Boots says, sitting in his office. "You could stand on it and look down into the lake. The water was only a few feet from the top."
On Sunday afternoon the hurricane savaged Palm Beach with 140 mph winds. Fifty miles inland, at Lake Okeechobee, breezes grew into gales and gales grew into hurricane winds. At nightfall, gauges at Belle Glade broke apart at 96 knots. Nobody knows for sure the actual strength of the winds, but barometers dropped to 27.43 millibars, making the hurricane the fifth most intense Atlantic storm ever.
The Boots family -- mother and father and four sons -- decided to spend the storm in a neighbor's sturdier house next door. Some 60 people in the community had the same idea. They fought through the wind, entered the two-bedroom home and prayed.
"There was a lot of weight in that house," Vernie Boots says now. "We figured all that weight might keep the house from floating off the foundations."
The storm advanced.
Its counterclockwise winds drove the lake at, and over, the 4-foot dike. As historian Lawrence E. Will later wrote:
The wind was howling with that hollow roar only a hurricane can make. The windows of the heavens were wide open like a lot gate, and rain almost horizontal, stinging like sleet, drove down in endless torrents in the pitch-black night. Then came the water. . . .
The dike had given away.
Lashed by the storm
Photo --Times files
Water 11 feet deep swept over the land.
"As it came into the house, everybody moved to the attic," Vernie Boots says now. He pauses and takes a deep breath. Sixty-four years have passed, and he still fights his grief when he tells the story. He continues only when he has regained his composure.
"I was one of the last into the attic. . . . The house kept shifting, and a window broke, and the glass cut a piece out of my hand. . . . The house became buoyant. . . . Floated off the foundations."
In the attic, terrified people wailed and prayed and wailed more. Outside, hell worked to enter the humble wood house.
"We floated over to where the government had been building a road. The wind smashed the house against the road bed. We rocked badly and smashed into the road bed again. The third time we hit the road the house fell apart.
"The last thing my mother said was "Whatever happens, stay together.' "
Vernie Boots grabbed a piece of ceiling as the house crumbled. It became his life raft. The hurricane, like the whale that swallowed Jonah, wanted to devour him.
"The wind liked to have turned me over. The big thing I tried to do is keep my head pointing at the wind. That and keeping my balance. I kept rotating on that thing, keeping my balance, all night.
"It was dark, real dark, except for lightning. I mean, you couldn't see nothing. The wind was a constant screech."
For hours it continued.
"Finally, about daylight, the wind started to die. I yelled for help. Two of my brothers answered. We'd been real close during the night but we hadn't seen or heard each other. They'd been hanging to other pieces of wood, too."
The Boots boys were about two miles out in the Everglades.
They waded toward civilization.
Community swept away
Devastation was complete. Belle Glade, Pahokee and South Bay were virtually destroyed. Bodies, livestock and lumber floated everywhere. Some survivors used bloated cows as rafts and splintered lumber as paddles.
"Nothing was left of the community where I lived except for four palm trees. . . . Whatever you was wearing is what you had. . . . They found the bodies of my father and brother -- they're buried in a cemetery near the Caloosahatchee River -- but my mother was never found.
"I never saw my mother again."
Again he has to pause for breath.
Bodies were stacked in makeshift coffins and wagons and carted to cemeteries. As days passed, and other decomposing bodies were discovered, a new strategy was developed to counter the possibility of disease. Bodies were quickly buried in mass, unmarked graves or burned on the spot. Vultures floated above the stench.
The official number of dead was set at 1,838. But many dead probably were never counted. Many storm victims were vegetable pickers from foreign lands who had no loved ones to ask about them or search for them. Most people who have studied the storm believe the official death toll is low.
Even so, in the annals of natural disasters, only the 1900 Galveston hurricane and the 1889 Johnstown Flood took more American lives.
Vernie Boots and his surviving brothers were raised by an older stepbrother in South Bay. When Vernie was old enough to support himself, he did. He farmed and built roads and helped construct the Hoover Dike, among the mightiest public works projects of its kind in America.
"I feel pretty good about that dike," he says. "I'm proud of it. I think it'll hold up. But I wouldn't blame anybody for leaving because a hurricane is coming.
"The big thing is the water. If you have wind and water you have trouble. Lot of people in Florida now, they don't understand what a hurricane can do."
I find the cemetery at Port Mayaca after lunch. It's five miles east of the Hoover Dike and Lake Okeechobee, on State Road 76, among slash pines and sabal palms and ranches and groves of mangoes. It's Father's Day and many of the hundreds of marked graves are graced with fresh flowers. Elderly ladies in church clothes wander among the tombstones to pay respects.
I park and stroll through the graveyard and search. It takes awhile to find what I'm looking for, but I find it near a storage building and an American flag and a pair of cedar trees.
The tombstone on the earthen mound reads:
To the 1,600 pioneers in this mass burial who gave their lives in the 1928 hurricane so that the glades might be as we know it today.
I pray a silent prayer and return to my car and drive toward the lake. The clouds, black and gray and puffy, are building high in the west, over the Big Water, over the Everglades.
It looks like rain.
Water quality: The lake is polluted from years of urban and agricultural runoff. But things are improving. In recent years the state has ordered dairy farms north of the lake to limit the amount of cattle feces going into the lake. Agriculture interests south of the lake have mostly stopped pumping fertilizer- and pesticide-laden water into Okeechobee. That's helped the lake but hurt the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge and Everglades National Park where the water ends up.
Water storage: The lake supplements the Floridan aquifer as a source for urban, agricultural and Everglades National Park water. Environmentalists claim agriculture gets first priority and the park last. South Florida water officials have started taking environmental interests into consideration and are studying how to achieve a fairer balance.
Flood control: The lake is potentially one of the most dangerous bodies of water in the United States, as shown by the 1928 hurricane. During big storms, water is released from the lake into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie canals. Massive water discharges, however, damage downstream estuaries. Water officials are experimenting with a less harmful discharge schedule to be used during non-emergencies. In the name of flood control, 1,400 miles of canals have also been dredged south of Lake Okeechobee.
Natural systems: Everglades National Park has suffered as water quality and quantity have declined over the last century. Environmentalists say the park needs more water and at appropriate times. Because the park for years was given a low priority by water managers, it sometimes received too much water during historically dry seasons and too little during wet seasons. Agricultural areas received much of the water the park should have gotten, biologists contend, and then sent dirty water into the rest of the Everglades. The result: ecological devastation. Land acquisition, changing the course of some flood-control canals, and new discharge schedules are in the works.
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