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Storm of Racism, Hurricane 1928, book review

Storm of racism

By Elaine Viets
Special Correspondent

July 28, 2002

Killer 'Cane: The Deadly Hurricane of 1928. Robert Mykle. Cooper Square Press. $26.95. 236 pp.

It was a summer of storms.

When people weren't talking about the endless rain, they were discussing the money flooding into Florida. Land prices were up. The Everglades was being drained for the rich land. Environmentalists complained, but why hold back progress -- and prosperity?

The summer of 1928 sounded eerily similar to our own. Reading Robert Mykle's Killer 'Cane, you hope the resemblance stops with the summer storms and rising property values. On Sept. 16, 1928, an unnamed hurricane slammed through Palm Beach and into the Everglades. The hurricane killed possibly half the population, as many as 3,000 people, the author says.

Compare those horrific figures with the modern hurricanes whose names haunt Americans: Hurricane Andrew is estimated to have killed 44 in 1992. Hurricane Hugo wiped out 504 people in 1989.

The 1928 death toll was high partly because of poor communication. Meteorologists gave conflicting reports about the hurricane's path. Some newspapers didn't even use the word "hurricane." It was bad for tourism. By the time many residents realized the hurricane would hit Lake Okeechobee, it was too late to evacuate.

Entire families disappeared in the storm, along with their homes. Grieving relatives could find no trace their loved ones ever existed. The storm's aftermath was hellish. The skies were black with cremation fires. The state ran out of money to search for and bury the dead. Everglades farmers plowed up the bones of hurricane victims for decades.

Mykle, of Lake Worth, says, "The storm did not kill equitably. More than three-quarters of the people killed in the 1928 storm were black. Living in flimsy shanties, many built of tarpaper and scrap wood near the least desirable areas ... they were the first to feel the water's wrath."

It was World War I's destruction that lured new settlers to the Everglades. The war needed canned vegetables. Farmers could grow three crops a year in the rich Everglades soil. Tallahassee was pressured to drain the Everglades to create more land and control mosquitoes. A muck dike built around half of Lake Okeechobee broke during the hurricane, unleashing a wall of water through Belle Glade, South Bay and Miami Locks, nearly wiping out those towns.

To humanize the storm's inhuman death toll, Mykle concentrated on certain Everglades and Palm Beach residents, such as the pioneering Martin family.

Henry Martin farmed some of the best land along Lake Okeechobee, then branched into shopkeeping. In 1928, the future looked bright for Henry, his wife Bessie Mae, and their eight children. Mykle has touching details. He shows us red-haired Minnie Lucy Martin spinning around in the new dress Bessie Mae made for the child's first day of school -- a day that never arrived. Minnie, her mother and her new dress were lost in the storm.

Another Martin daughter, Thelma, became a hurricane hero. The 12-year-old held her baby brother Robert above the lashing flood, while the storm drove spiked debris through her leg. Henry Martin, the man who had everything, lost his wife and three children in the hurricane. His brother, sister-in-law and their four children also died. Henry's store was crushed by the water. His house vanished. He never recovered.

These dramatic tales should make for an epic story, but Mykle cannot quite carry it off. He drowns in a tidal wave of facts. He tells us too much, as he traces the hurricane from its beginnings in Africa while simultaneously describing Everglades settlers' lives. On one page, Mykle has the history of the Cape Verde Islands. On the next, he jumps to Henry Martin's new store in Miami Locks.

There are other reasons to read Killer 'Cane. Some histories tiptoe past segregation's cruelties. Mykle says "mostly blacks" were forced, sometimes at gunpoint, to clear the debris-strewn roads and canals. Other blacks had to handle the decomposing dead. Black storm victims had separate -- and not always equal -- mass graves.

Mykle also described how the 1928 storm killed the Florida land boom. "Large tracts of land were abandoned; tax forfeitures nearly bankrupted the state." Banks around the nation that lent money against Florida land collapsed, starting the spiral that ended in the Depression.

The storm changed the Everglades ecology forever. The collapsed muck dike was replaced by the massive Hoover Dike. It's held. So far.

No one knows how many died in the 1928 hurricane. The official count was 1,836, but "the true figure is more likely close to 3,000," Mykle says. "The officials worked very hard to keep the death count as low as possible." It was bad for business.

A Florida newpaper's ungrammatical complaint after the hurricane could be the most chilling line in Mykle's book:

"The stacks of coffins on the dock at Canal Point is hurting the real estate market."

Author Elaine Viets lives in Hollywood. Click here for Robert Mykle's website. He lives in Lake Worth, Florida.

Copyright © 2002, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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