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Riding out 1928 storm in Boynton High

With the 1928 hurricane more than 83 years past, the number of survivors is now a few. A decade ago, I was doing a talk in Boynton Beach and said the storm’s eye likely went no farther south than Lake Worth.

A hand shot up. Not true, a woman said. We were in the eye.

It was Lorraine Lewerenz Vicki, who died in November. She survived Palm Beach County’s most profound disaster at the old Boynton Beach High, the same one the city is trying to save. Here’s an excerpt from Black Cloud, my book on the storm:

In Boynton Beach, 13-year-old Eunice Lewerenz watched the plaster come down from the ceiling of the new high school. It had been built a year earlier.

Her father Walter had labored in a woodworking mill until lungs weakened by tuberculosis made it too hard. His doctor told him he needed a change of climate. In the fall of 1928, there were five children: Eunice, Aileen, Harriett, Lorraine and Walter Jr.

Walter decided his home wasn’t safe. The obvious alternative: the brand new high school.

They went first to the room used for manual training, now called shop class. It was on the west side and they believed it would be safer than the home economics room on the east side.

Suddenly the ceiling started to come down. The second-floor auditorium came with it. Eunice and her family were in a corner and weren’t hurt, but one boy was.

They raced over to the home of ornamental nursery owner Alfred C. Shepard, just across the street. Inside were Shepard, his wife, and three children. The home had French doors, and Shepard feared they would blow in. Someone placed a chair under the door handle and sat in it.

Then came the eye. Walter ran to his home. The yard was full of dead chickens. He gathered them up and returned to the Shepard home. He was gone less than a half hour. The wind picked up again. Later, the problems of freshly dead chickens and hungry refugees soon solved each other.

The school survived and was repaired, but the storm destroyed Town Hall, the Hotel Cassandra and the First Methodist Church.


The old Boynton Beach High School, shown here in 1956, was built in 1927 as Old Mangrove High School. (Palm Beach Post file photo)

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Posted in Eliot Kleinberg February 9, 2012 at 1:33 pm.

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Survivor recalls great 1928 hurricane

Our Sept. 15 column marked the 83rd anniversary of the great 1928 hurricane. Eighty-three years is a long time, and in recent years, we’ve concluded that the years had caught up with just about anyone who was there.

Then we got a call from Hager Lowe, 87, of Clewiston.

On Sept. 16. 1928, Lowe was 4. He lived in a four-bedroom house in South Bay with his parents and three older siblings, the oldest 11.

“I remember this much,” he said recently. “Daddy talking to mother and saying, ‘Dorothy, we need to go. There’s a big wind coming toward us.’ Daddy told mother, ‘Get some clothes and stuff and let’s get on that barge.’”

Hoffman Construction was helping build State Road 80 between Belle Glade and Clewiston. It had a giant quarterboat where workers ate and slept. Nearly 200 residents piled onto it — including the Lowes, who got into one of the boat’s closed structures.

“I do not remember the wind,” Lowe said. “Evidently I went to sleep. The next morning, there were four 2-inch (steel) cables holding it at the corner. Two of them were broken. That’s how much that boat rocked.”

All of the Lowes would survive.

“I remember the next day, going back to the house. Except there wasn’t a house no more. Next thing I remember was three or four months later, my dad putting a roof on a new house.”

Lowe went on to serve in World War II and Korea, then worked a laundry route and was a warehouse supervisor for U.S. Sugar.

Charles Ashton “Mutt” Thomas, who died in 1994, and whose wife was Hager Lowe’s cousin, was 13 when the storm drowned his mother and five siblings. Mutt floated for 10 miles.

Hager Lowe and his wife of 64 years, Wilda, lived for decades in a stucco house in Clewiston. She died in March.

Wilda was a painter, Hager said, and strictly from his descriptions, painted a portrait of the storm and another of the barge. He said they were eerily accurate.

About six years ago, Lowe said, three survivors gathered in Clewiston. He said he’s pretty sure he’s the last one standing.

“I’m living on borrowed time now,” he said. “I have no squawk coming.”

He said no one asks him about the storm. That was long ago.


Hager Lowe’s wife, Wilda, who died in March, painted two portraits showing scenes from the great 1928 hurricane, based on her husband’s descriptions. Lowe, of Clewiston, was 4 years old when the storm struck. (Photo courtesy of the Lowe family)

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Posted in Eliot Kleinberg October 6, 2011 at 3:16 pm.

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Hurricane of 1928 was Geerworth’s end

Each year at this time, we mark the most profound event ever in Palm Beach County: the great Sept. 16, 1928, hurricane, which killed as many as 3,000 people.

Most died when a 6-foot muck dike failed and the storm pushed the waters of Lake Okeechobee into the countryside.

It’s the second-deadliest natural disaster in American history.

One of the storm’s victims wasn’t a person, but a place — a place called Geerworth.

The 16,000-acre tract was about 10 miles east of Belle Glade, at a spot at Senter Road and State Road 880′s “Nine Mile Bend.”

It had been founded around 1918 by Harvey G. Geer (above), who developed much of the West Palm Beach area and helped build the first Royal Park (middle) bridge to Palm Beach.

The first buildings went up on April 13, 1921. By December, more than 100 acres had been cleared.

Geer sold 20 tracts, of 10 to 50 acres each, mostly to a colony of Brits, set to leave Liverpool the following February.

An article echoed the hopes of developers of homes and farms sprawling from the coast to the big lake: “This is just a beginning and demonstrates what will happen as soon as the roads into the Glades are completed.”

And, it said, “every resident of Palm Beach County should make this trip and familiarize himself with this coming great domain which lies at their very door.”

In 1922, much of the settlement was swamped by floods.

But by 1925, Conners Highway was about to link the Glades to the coast. An article from April 1925, two months before the road opened, said, “already the new town of Geerworth has been laid out with a hotel, packing house, several good dwelling houses and county school. Crops are now growing and daily shipments of produce are being made.”

That resurgence was brief. In March 1928, with the countryside tinder-dry following a drought, a grass fire roared through, burning down several buildings.

The 1928 storm washed out Geerworth forever. The former site now is part of the area’s expanse of sugar cane and muck.

Geer died at 83 in June 1939.

The annual service to victims of the 1928 hurricane who are buried at the cemetery in Port Mayaca, is at 10 a.m. Friday, the hurricane’s 83rd anniversary.

Special thanks to archivist Debi Murray, Historical Society of Palm Beach County.


This photo taken in Belle Glade after the devastating hurricane of 1928 shows the damage to the Everglades Experiment Station. A 6-foot muck dike around Lake Okeechobee failed, and much of the nearby countryside was flooded. (Photo courtesy of the University of Florida)

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Posted in Eliot Kleinberg September 16, 2011 at 8:51 am.

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This week in history: Belle Glade incorporated

The city of Belle Glade was incorporated on April 9, 1928, just 5 months before the Okeechobee hurricane roared over the lake, killing at least 2,500 people. One story has it that Belle Glade — originally known as Hillsboro after its location on the the Hillsboro Canal — got its name from a blackboard set up in the lobby of the town’s only hotel where guests and residents were invited to suggest a new town name.

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The sculpture of a family fleeing the killer storm of 1928 was commissioned by the Belle Glade Bicentennial Committee and created by Ferenc Varga “to honor the early Glades pioneers and the more than 2,000 persons who lost their lives in the disastrous 1928 hurricane.” (Palm Beach Post staff file photos)

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Posted in Flashback blog April 4, 2011 at 6:00 am.

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Lake Worth publisher braved 1928 storm

Every year at this time we donate a Post-Time column to what’s arguably the most important event in Palm Beach County history: the 1928 hurricane . It’s the second deadliest natural disaster of any kind in America. The official death toll of 1,836 was updated to 2,500 at the 75th anniversary in 2003, and many historians believe far more died.

One of our more loyal readers has been retired pilot William S. Stafford, who lives all the way in New Zealand.

Stafford grew up in Lake Worth. At the time of the storm, his father, James, later Lake Worth’s youngest mayor, was about 7 years old. And his grandfather, William M. “Chief” Stafford, was publisher of the Lake Worth Leader.

“My father would not discuss the ’28 storm, but my grandfather retold it to me quite often, and my grandmother made interjections throughout his dialog, adding to their night of terror,” he writes.

Just after noon, William Stafford crossed to the Lake Worth Casino. Winds were so strong that any attempt at photos “was all but impossible due to the sand and its effects on the camera.”

His 3-ton 1926 Hudson sedan got him back over the wooden bridge, waves breaking over it.

Realizing it was too late to get out a special edition, he shut down the presses and sent his workers home. His own trip home, normally 5 minutes, took 25. At one point a small house or shed flew over the car and smashed to the ground just behind him.

It took him 10 minutes to get the door open. He and his wife had to shout to be heard. They could hear windows upstairs starting to smash; they ran up and began tearing off closet doors and nailing them to the frames.

“Chief” ran outside to rescue his pet Shetland pony, trapped in its shed, which blew away as soon as the horse was out.

As the eye approached, Stafford ran out to secure more windows. Then the second half was on them. Knowing it well could be worse, he and his wife put their children under mattresses and the dining table. The family cowered for another four hours.

The next morning, they saw their home was one of only two left standing in the neighborhood. The morning after the storm, Stafford raced to his newspaper to find the roof had come down right on the presses. It would be weeks before he could publish again.

The family home later would be condemned. A new one finished in 1929 incorporated salvaged items, so “there were always constant reminders in the ‘new’ house of the ’28 storm,” William writes.

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This photo of Narcissus Street, looking south from Second Street in West Palm Beach, was taken Sept. 16, 1928, following the hurricane. (Photo provided to The Palm Beach Post)

Click here for more photos and memories of the 1928 hurricane.

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Posted in Eliot Kleinberg September 16, 2010 at 8:36 am.

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