Friday, June 22, 2018
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An excerpt from 'Black Cloud,' a killer hurricane

Eliot Kleinberg is that rarest of Floridians: a native. Born in South Florida, he has spent nearly four decades as a journalist and author, 29 years of that at the Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach.

He has also written several books of Florida history. His 2003 book, Black Cloud: The Deadly Hurricane of 1928, has been published in a new edition by Florida Historical Society Press.

The massive 1928 hurricane killed 2,500 people, including 700 black Floridians who were buried in an unmarked mass grave. Many of the dead drowned when Lake Okeechobee burst through its flimsy dike. Kleinberg gathered news reports, documents, diaries and interviews with survivors to tell the story. Here is an excerpt from Black Cloud recounting part of the experience of a survivor, 13-year-old Charles "Mutt" Thomas, whose family farmed near Lake Okeechobee.

Colette Bancroft, Times book editor

The day before, Mutt's parents had gone into West Palm Beach to buy clothes for the new school year, set to start Monday. They returned with word a hurricane was coming but was in no danger of turning into the Glades. ...

By (Sunday) afternoon, a strong gale had come up. Captain Forbes, the Hoffman construction supervisor, sent his two sons into the winds, already up to 60 mph, to warn South Bay's estimated 400 residents. Nearly 200 piled onto the quarterboat, preferring the solid vessel, secured to pilings by steel cable, to their flimsy homes. Its strong mooring didn't stop it from rolling in the waves. Van Horn kept to the boat's pump, smearing grease on the overworked parts to keep them operating, as those on board used buckets to try to bail out the rising water.

Mutt's family had spent early Sunday afternoon boiling peanuts. The wind was beginning to blow, and Mutt could see the wave action over the little muck dike that protected the mainland. Around dark, having thoroughly enjoyed the peanuts, the Thomas family decided it might be a good idea to go inside. Mutt's father, Charles E. Thomas, tried to decide which action might mean salvation and which death. He opted to abandon the home and took his wife, three sons, and three daughters to the nearby home of V.F. Thirsk, caretaker of Thomas's farm. Charles Thomas thought it might be safer. The Thomases waded through waist-deep water in strong winds; as they entered the house through a back door, the water followed them over the jamb. The Boots family went there as well. In all, about sixty people — about twenty whites and about forty blacks — sought refuge there. Mutt's Uncle Minor stayed in the Thomas home.

Mutt looked down. Water was squirting up through the cracks in the floorboards. In minutes it was up to his knees. Women pulled their children onto tabletops. At one end of the home, men began hacking holes in the ceiling. By the time people began crawling into the attic, the water was up to the windowsills.

Suddenly there was a surge. The house started to move. Mutt's father had gotten a hole in the ceiling big enough for another man to crawl into the attic and start ripping away the panels of corrugated sheet iron covering the roof. Suddenly the man vanished, tossed by the high winds through an opening in the roof and out into the black night. As the house broke apart, Mutt scrambled toward the hole in the roof, deciding his chances were better in the open wind than the collapsing structure. Suddenly a strong hand grabbed him and lifted him through the hole. He said later he believed it to be Mr. Thirsk's. He grabbed onto the roof for a few moments before he was tossed into the water. He grabbed a piece of floating wreckage and held on. His father had vanished.

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