Stuart Schwartz: How Rebuilding Went After the Hurricane of 1928

Roundup: Talking About History

... Let me finish here by returning to the San Felipe or Okeechobee hurricane [of 1928] with which I began because it takes us into the Twentieth century and because in the storm’s different impact in Florida and Puerto Rico we can see how some of themes I have suggested were played out. Leadership in both societies had a vision of an ideal future and in both places they were willing to use the disaster as tool to create an ideal future. By 1928, the American National Red Cross was functioning –a story in and of itself--and its reports and efforts in both areas provide considerable information on the impact and on the nature of reconstruction envisioned.

In Puerto Rico, while immediate mortality had been kept relatively low, the San Felipe storm had left about a third of the 1.5 million population homeless. Most of the $40 million in property loss had been to privately-owned properties. There were those in the political class of the island who saw the recovery as an opportunity to restructure the society by creating a countryside populated with industrious small farmers living in neat cottages, the realization of the old rural myth of the hardy jíbaro. Natalio Bayonet Díaz, ex-member of the House of Representatives urged the Governor to call on Puerto Ricans to shoulder the burden of the recovery and not depend on foreign aid. He warned that allowing rural to urban migration had to be prevented at all costs and that only children and women either tending families or unable to work should be able to receive free food. Over 40,000 homes had to be rebuilt to house about 250,000 (rural) people left homeless by the storm, but that task also offered opportunities for reform. Bayonet Díaz argued that building new, orderly residences would be a necessary improvement, “solving once and for all the problem of hygienic dwelling for our laboring men, and causing to disappear from the countryside the wretched sight of the hut (bohio) which is a stigma upon our civilization.” But one could not give the poor and destitute something for nothing. The rebuilding was to be done under the supervision of the relief agencies and municipal committees by the country people themselves, paid for their labor, ten percent in cash and ninety percent in food rations.

This kind of social engineering also emerged in a plan for relief developed by island leaders representing the sugar growers and supported by Guillermo Esteves, the Commissioner for Puerto Rico. This plan divided the affected population into three categories; small owners, the urban working poor, and the arrimados, those working on the big coffee estates who themselves could be divided into two groups, those who lived by cultivating a small plot and those who lived in small barracks as employees without any land. Esteves sought to convince the Red Cross that the social divisions or categories within the population had to be treated differently and that “the good qualities of the Puertorrican small famer recognized by all, ” should be stimulated. The small proprietors were of “good moral character”and could be trusted to rebuild and improve their land and did not need to be supervised. The other groups had to be treated more cautiously. Above all, he and the plan opposed the moving of arrimados from the coffee farms to small towns, and instead, he advocated the building of houses and distribution of small plots to the workers, but only after the haciendas had recovered, for if not, then there would be no work for them and the Red Cross would be forced to bear the burden. Esteves, claimed “these arrimados love the land they till and they are the seed from which future farmers will sprout.” But his admiration for them had limitations. Since the resources of the landowners had to be used to start to replant their lands, the money for rebuilding for the workers should be given to the landowners who could provide the rural laborers with shelter and work. It was a plan that responded to the specificities of the island’s society , but that once again would place authority and resources in the hands of the predominant planter class since only they could provide the basis for the islands’ future.

In Florida too there was a desire to rebuild for the future. The power of the storm had not been shared equally. The Bahamian and other West Indian workers at Belle Glade and other small communities near Lake Okeechobee had born the brunt of the storm. In the racially differentiated world of Florida in the 1920s it was to be expected that in the effort to relieve and rebuild, differences of color would play a role as well. Attention went to property losses in Delray and Palm Beach not to the unnamed bodies swept away by the waters or burned in communal pyres. The Red Cross, in fact, created a Colored Advisory Committee that had among its tasks the refutation of “rumors” that aid was not being apportioned equally to Blacks and whites. There were problems. The poor had lost homes that were heavily mortgaged and faced foreclosure. If the Red Cross reconstructed them, then, it argued, the lenders not the homeless would profit. So such homes were not rebuilt. There were complaints. The Red Cross was defensive in the face of Black criticism. In its final report, it argued: “The Committee, knowing that its people are receiving their full pro-rata of relief, cannot but be embarrassed when ungrounded complaints are aired by chronic kickers.”

Such unpleasantness could not stop progress. South Florida was committed to ordered growth, agricultural and urban development. The storm could not be allowed to undermine its trajectory. In March, 1929, before the Director of the Red Cross left Florida , the West Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce arranged for him to make an overflight of the area. From the air he could see, the Red Cross report noted, “Cities, towns and villages had been set in order; cleared streets were lined with replanted parkings; agricultural lands were drained and covered with a most luxuriant growth of vegetation that seemed to have sprung up almost overnight; fields were again separated by ribbon -like drainage and irrigation canals; the whole countryside was dotted with reconstructed homes, the new unpainted lumber glittering brightly in the morning sun.” The storm had not been allowed to alter the road to progress.

In both places the storm had been a disaster, made so by actions and decisions that long preceded the arrival of the winds. In both places the responses took place within a social and ideological context that patterned them. Predicting the great tropical hurricanes has always been problematical, predicting future historiography is just as difficult. This story of the recurring storms and their interaction with their societies of the region, repeated over the course of five centuries, has provided us with a pathway or a metanarrative for understanding the Caribbean region and its past, and it is safe to predict that just as surely as the coming of the storms with each June in the new millennium, it will continue to do so.

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