If you drive west from Stuart, on Highway 76 towards Port Mayaca, you’ll eventually see a large graveyard on the left hand side of the road. It is well kept and reminiscent of an old Florida, a Florida of pioneers, the Klu Klux Clan, and the Indian Wars. Large oak trees line the property and the unusually massive grave stones stand like sentinels to a time long past.
At the entrance is a memorial sign dedicated to the approximately 3000 people who were killed in the Florida hurricane of 1928. An earthen dike, barely holding back the waters that had naturally flowed south for thousands of years, breeched, killing mostly black agricultural migrant workers, while flooding sugar, vegetable farms, and personal property built in the path of the natural flow way south of the lake. Thousands of bodies were laboriously buried in mass graves, one in Martin and another in Palm Beach County. (http://www.srh.noaa.gov/mfl/okeechobee)
African American, Etonville writer, Zora Neale Hurston, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zora_Neale_Hurston) writes in her classic novel, Their Eyes were Watching God, about migrant workers “looking back” as they were running to escape the furry of the 1928 hurricane.
“Above all the drive of the wind and the water…and the lake. Under its multiplied roar could be heard the almighty sound of grinding rock and timber and a wail….people trying to run in raging waters and screaming…The monstropolous beast had left his bed. The two hundred miles an hour winds has looses his chains. The sea was walking the earth, with a heavy heel.”
All work for blacks during the late 1920s was difficult and filled with the prejudice and hardship of the Jim Crow Laws. In the sugar industry there were complaints of “controlling” black harvest labor, aided by law enforcement, debt peonage, forced labor and even killings.
Today when people speak about the hurricane of 1928, the death of the workers south of the lake is credited as the source for pushing for “flood protection.” This is not full disclosure.
The truth of the matter is that the storm was also an opportunity for the struggling sugar industry, south of Lake Okeechobee, not only to “protect” their poorly treated laborers, but to rally local, state and national government officials to support legislation to “invest” in the area against future flooding for the benefit of their fields, and the future riches of the industry. (Source Raining Cain in the Glades, Hollister, http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/R/bo5704198.html)
This was no easy feat and insanely expensive in a time around the U.S. Great Depression. Politicians and businessmen were creative and put emphasis the Okeechobee Waterway for “navigation, “rather than focusing solely on “flood protection.” At the time, navigation funds were much easier to get from the federal government than funds for “drainage” or flood control of the newly created Okeechobee Flood District.
These funds came to fruition in the construction of the “Cross State Canal,” also known as the “Okeechobee Waterway, “which links the Caloosahatchee River to Lake Okeechobee, to the St Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon and conveniently doubles as a giant drainage canal for the sugar industry, diverting as much a 92% of the flow of water south of Lake Okeechobee.
You may have seen an arch in Rio that says “Gateway to the Atlantic.” That arch was built in celebration of he Cross State Canal…
Local people at the time had no of idea the greater repercussions of such to their greatest local resource, the St Lucie River, Indian River Lagoon. We still sit open mouthed today when S-308 at Port Mayaca is opened by the Army Corp of Engineers, and our area’s river resources are destroyed. Certainly we have our own local canal and runoff problems, but Lake Okeechobee’s tremendous waters, all the way from Orlando, are most destructive.
It’s exhausting. The Cross State Canal was completed in 1937, and we in Martin County have been fighting ever since, the changing winds of Florida’s hurricane of 1928.