WEST PALM BEACH — Robert Hazard, a gray-haired community activist of 60, hates to miss the weather report. This time of year, when something seems to be brewing in the Atlantic by the hour, he is especially vigilant. ¶ He has experienced a few hurricanes in his four decades in Florida, though never a bad one. But he has spoken with his elders about the Storm of 1928 — the hurricane of their nightmares. He also has communed with the spirits of the ones killed by that very hurricane. "Oh, they talk to me,'' he says with a shy smile. ¶ You can find Robert Hazard almost every day at the one-acre lot at the corner of Tamarind and 25th streets in the black section of town. He saunters through the field in a hurricanelike counterclockwise direction, meditating about what happened. ¶ Like the spirits of the dead always tell him: "It was quite a hurricane.'' ¶ The dead folks who talk to him were killed by that hurricane eight decades ago, then pitched into a hole and forgotten.
Before a great storm named Katrina came to symbolize nature's fury and human folly, there was the Hurricane of 1928.
"As we saw on television, Katrina was bad,'' Hazard says. "The one in 1928 was probably worse. But how many people have ever heard about it? I'm guessing not many.''
He has made it his life's purpose to tell the story.
Communication was primitive compared to today, he tells people to set the stage. There were no weather satellites in space, no televisions, not many radios to broadcast alerts. Meteorologists ran up red and black flags on a city hall pole to warn residents about a coming hurricane.
September 16, 1928, fell on a Sunday. Folks noticed the gray skies on the way home from church. That evening, the storm blasted ashore in southern Palm Beach County, sweeping aside trees and buildings. Then it roared inland toward the state's largest lake. "It woke up old Okeechobee and the monster began to roll in his bed," wrote Zora Neale Hurston, in the hurricane chapter of her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Protecting a handful of low-lying, humble farming towns from the 700-square-mile lake was a 4-foot earthen levee.
Some people who lived on the lake had gotten word about the coming apocalypse. Some hadn't. It didn't really matter. Roads were narrow, unpaved, prone to flooding. Few people had dependable vehicles in which to evacuate.
By the time the 140 mph winds fell silent, thousands lay dead, drowned when the 30-mile-wide lake overflowed.
For the most part they were poor, black migrant farm workers. They died running for higher ground. They died when houses crumpled, capsized or floated away. They died in their attics or clinging to debris. They died holding babies and grandparents in their arms.
The official 1928 Hurricane death count: 1,836.
The revised 2003 National Hurricane Center death count: 2,500. With an asterisk. Historians say the death toll likely was higher, though nobody will ever know the precise number.
A new levee, 30 feet high, now surrounds the lake. It has never been tested by a hurricane as powerful as the Category 4 storm of 1928.
Robert Hazard competed in football, basketball and track in high school. Now he has slow legs and a middle-aged waistline. He lives in a neat neighborhood on a canal where enormous alligators bask on the lawns. He doesn't know if he could outrun an alligator anymore.
Years ago, a woman told him about the alligator that saved her life that day.
As the winds shrieked over the lake, she told Hazard, her family headed for a sturdier government building. Soon the water streamed through the crack under the door. Then the door broke and torrents spilled in. She was 6. She climbed atop a chair. Around her, folks moaned and called on God.
The water touched her chin.
The old woman explained why she hadn't drowned. Around dawn, when the waters were subsiding, she heard someone yell "God is good'' and point her way. Her arm was in an alligator's mouth. The alligator hadn't hurt her, the woman said. It was holding her up.
Hazard didn't know what to make of such a story except that it gave him the chills and the impetus to learn more.
The 1928 Hurricane was the second deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, behind only the 1906 Galveston Hurricane, which killed more than 6,000. The 1928 Hurricane took more lives than the Johnstown (Pa.) Flood of 1889 and the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 combined.
As with Katrina, whose winds and water breached levees around New Orleans in 2005, victims were mostly people of color. "The hurricane may have accounted for the most deaths of black people in a single day in U.S. history,'' wrote Eliot Kleinberg in Black Cloud, his history of the 1928 storm.
"The montropolous beast had left his bed,'' wrote Zora Neale Hurston in her famous novel. "The two hundred miles an hour wind had loosed his chains. He seized hold of his dikes and ran forward until he met the quarters; uprooted them like grass and rushed on after this supposed-to-be-conquerors, rolling the dikes, rolling the houses, rolling the people in the houses along with other timbers. The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.''
When possible, the white dead were collected, identified and buried in pine boxes in the closest cemeteries. The bodies of the black people were stacked in roadside pyres and burned. Others were dumped in mass graves, some marked, some not marked.
Most victims were migrant farm workers from the Caribbean. Back in the islands, their families never found out what happened to them.
Some 674 black corpses were trucked from the lake to a dump in West Palm Beach. The bloated bodies were bulldozed into a 20-foot-deep hole and covered over.
As the years went by, the dump became a sewage plant, an electrical substation, a slaughterhouse. Finally it was a litter-strewn, weedy field. There was not as much as a wooden cross to mark the resting place of the black hurricane dead.
When Robert Hazard ambled through the field, he could hear the spirits calling him.
"If there had been 674 white folks in this mass grave there would have been a marker a long time ago.''
He was born in Massachusetts in 1948. His dad pressed clothes for a living; his mother was a homemaker and a maid. She was also a community activist.
He remembers showing up at the baseball field in Worcester to join Little League when he was 8 and being turned away because of the color of his skin. Another time, older white boys held him down while other boys heated something in a fire. You can still see a trace of the scar below his eye where he was branded by a red-hot Abraham Lincoln penny.
His other scars are inside, but they're always present, even now. He became a heroin addict, got clean and became a drug counselor. He was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and by Malcolm X. He protested police brutality. He joined the Black Panther Party. He organized free breakfasts for the poor. After he moved to West Palm to live closer to his retired parents, he opened a charter school for black children and worked in the justice system.
He also began looking for the mass grave on Tamarind Street.
Nobody, not even hurricane survivors, could remember the exact location. He'd drive them to the field and walk them around. Someone would point to a spot. Someone else would say, "No, a little south.'' Hazard drove a stake into that spot and hung a wreath.
In 1991, Hazard and friends held their first candlelight vigil in the field. Local newspapers covered the story. The field's owner, an exterminator, hadn't known about his property's history.
He and Hazard became allies in an effort to persuade the city to buy the land.
It didn't happen.
On Sept. 16, 1998, Hazard and a group he founded — the Storm of '28 Memorial Park Coalition — staged a 70th anniversary service.
Hazard began haunting city hall with an idea:
He wanted the city to purchase the land, install a memorial and build an education center. Price tag: $6-million.
It didn't happen.
In 2000, the city at last hired a company to look for the mass grave. Using sonar equipment, the specialists isolated what seemed to be a mass of bones about 20 feet down. The location was only a few steps from the place where Hazard had hung his wreath.
Black historians throughout the state began writing letters to the mayor.
On Dec. 11, 2000, the city purchased the land.
Last week, Robert Hazard was walking the new memorial park in his usual hurricanelike counterclockwise manner while a guy from the city's beautification committee was weeding the flower bed on the grave site.
There are no plans for an education center or a museum. But the memorial plaque looked shiny and nice. The paths were clean; the benches were in place. Hazard enjoys sitting on a favorite bench after dark and watching the moon come up.
On Tuesday, on the 80th anniversary of the Hurricane of 1928, the mayor of West Palm Beach, Lois Frankel, is going to make a speech at the new memorial park at 10 a.m. If Hazard is asked, he will say a few words, though he doesn't expect to be asked.
He will say a few words at 7 p.m., at a second ceremony at the memorial, a ceremony featuring African burial rituals, prayer and hurricane stories.
Hazard doesn't know if any survivors will attend. They are old and few now, feeble, afraid of their memories.
In a way, Robert Hazard has become the teller of their hurricane stories.
Roofs flew like birds. Cottonmouth snakes swam into the attics where folks awaited rescue. Black folks, conscripted to gather the dead, accidentally discovered the bodies of brothers, sisters, parents, children. Bloated bodies. Death in the air. Vultures soaring above the wet earth for weeks.
In 2008, traffic rushes along Tamarind and 25th. A breeze rustles the trees. Robert Hazard says, "Everything looks real nice here now. I think the spirits of the dead ones are going to like it.''
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727. News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Special thanks to Paula Martin at the Richard and Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum.