AVON PARK — A hurricane broke through the Lake Okeechobee dike in 1926, devastating the town of Moore Haven, Florida. The flood waters washed away homes and drowned many of the town’s residents. A little known mass grave in Pinecrest Cemetery in Sebring, Florida holds the secret of their demise. Because of their research on the disaster, two South Florida State College (SFSC) students, Camila Rimoldi Ibanez and Kyria Wickham, have assisted in bringing the Moore Haven story to light and honor its victims.
That research was published in the fall 2020 issue of the “Journal of Multidisciplinary Research.” The research article is titled, “Disaster at Moore Haven: How the 1926 Great Miami Hurricane Destroyed a Small Town on the Shores of Lake Okeechobee.”
“It’s extremely important for students to know that they can work on a project and get recognized in this way,” said Dr. James Hawker Jr., SFSC dean of arts and sciences. “Two of our undergraduate students published research. I’ve never see this before. Students become engaged in learning so much more than in the classroom by participating in these kinds of undergraduate research projects.”
Rimoldi and Wickham are both dually enrolled at Sebring High School and SFSC. They’re also members of SFSC’s Honors program. In their first semester at SFSC, they took Dr. Charlotte Pressler’s Honors Freshman English I class. Pressler, who recently retired from SFSC, had heard from local historians at the Avon Park Depot Museum about the Moore Haven hurricane and that few people knew many of the details. So she proposed the topic to her Honors Freshman English I class as a research project. According to Wickham, the mass grave at Pinecrest Cemetery is difficult to find. “We wanted to, eventually, recognize the victims, maybe through a state grant and funding, with a bronze plaque,” she said. “That was the goal of the project.”
Each student involved in the project took on specific aspects of the disaster. “Being the science person that I am, I tried to focus on how and why the dikes and the town failed to protect the people,” Rimoldi said. “Back then, there weren’t really any building codes. The residents were just building houses that were made from materials immediately available to them. So, I researched why and how the dike failed during the storm.”
Wickham focused on researching the victims — the number of victims in the mass grave and how they came to a resting place in Sebring, the body recovery process, and the forensics that were done. She had some early successes and ran into a few snags. “I communicated with the Stephenson-Nelson Funeral Home and received documents from them about the hurricane and how they traveled down to Moore Haven at that time and helped with the body collection and identification process.” Wickham drew information from documents provided by the Sebring Historical Society, and she and Pressler attempted to find relatives of hurricane victims to gather oral histories. However, they found that the survivors had said little about the disaster to their family members. Wickham also found it difficult to gather forensics information. “There wasn’t much in the way of forensics back in the 1920s — it was just starting as a practice,” she said.
“There are multiple racial aspects to the research that I didn’t expect to come across,” Wickham said. “Moore Haven was an agricultural area with a lot of laborers who were from elsewhere, some were Hispanic, and some African American. There are a lot of differences in the number of people who died and survived because whites were given priority during that time.”
Rimoldi and Wickham’s research first went public when they presented posters at two undergraduate conferences—the Florida Collegiate Honors Conference and the Florida Undergraduate Research Conference (FURC) — in February 2020. Wickham networked while at FURC and met Dr. Donald Duke, an ecology and environmental studies professor from Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU), who was interested in continuing the research on Moore Haven.
Rimoldi and Wickham feel that their research on the Moore Haven disaster is significant for the residents of South and Central Florida. “Bringing events to life and understanding what happened shows respect for those who lost their lives, lost their homes, lost their family in such an event. If I was in their shoes, what would I want to be done or what would I have done?”
Wickham said, “It reveals a part of local history that we didn’t know we had. It helps us recognize individuals who went through severe times and now they can be recognized and identified. And we can just keep telling their story.”
Rimoldi and Wickham both look forward to graduation from high school in spring 2021 and earning their Associate in Arts from SFSC in May 2021. Wickham plans to major in biochemistry and wants to be a research scientist working on genetics. She’s currently considering attendance at the University of Central Florida, Florida Gulf Coast University, or the University of Florida. Rimoldi plans to major in marine biology with an eye toward continuing her education at the University of Miami or the University of Chicago. “Ultimately, I want to become a researcher, specifically, to help coral with all the bleaching epidemics going on right now. I want to help that type of ecosystem.” Coral bleaching is stress often caused by the rise in ocean temperatures. When the temperatures remain high, coral release symbiotic algae. Over time, without the algae, the coral can die.
“Undergraduate research allows students to dig deeper into an area of interest,” said Amy Bohan, SFSC Honors Program director and biology instructor. “It allows more one-on-one time with the instructor and allows them to learn a new skill set. For example, they can learn laboratory techniques if they’re working in our science labs. The students will have networking opportunities if they attend and present their data at undergraduate conferences. Undergraduate research also helps in building students’ resumes for when they apply to transfer to a university or when applying for specific programs.”
Bohan said that research opportunities for students at SFSC are plentiful in the Humanities and the Natural Sciences. Research projects have been done on the Moore Haven disaster, industrial hemp for the removal of contaminants in rivers and lakes, canine congestive heart failure, growth factor genes in endothelial cell and neuron function, and on mechanisms of apoptosis (programmed cell death).
Students who are interested in becoming involved in the SFSC Honors Program may contact Bohan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-784-7362. To become involved in a research project at SFSC, students may contact Bohan, Dr. Hawker at email@example.com or 863-784-7329, Dr. Daniel Sanches at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-784-7360, Dr. Mintoo Patel at Mintoo.Patel@southflorida.edu, or Dr. Theresa James at JamesT@southflorida.edu or 863-784-7185.