Crumbling Dike Threatens South Florida
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. Even a weak hurricane can overwhelm the leaky and crumbling dike around Florida's massive Lake Okeechobee, putting more than 40,000 people in "imminent danger," state officials said Tuesday.
With hurricane season less than a month away, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to speed restoration of the dike, while the state scrambles to protect against what the governor said was a one-in-six chance the dike would fail in a direct hit from a hurricane.
"The first thing that needs to be done is get a commitment to fortify the dike," Bush said at a news conference. "Secondly, we need to adjust our evacuation plans for the region."
He ordered state emergency managers to put together an evacuation plan for inland residents living near the south rim of Lake Okeechobee -- the second-largest freshwater body in the United States after Lake Michigan.
The lake covers 730 square miles and its waters are held back by the Herbert Hoover Dike, a 140-mile earthen structure built in stages by the U.S. Corps of Engineers beginning in 1932. Age and recent hurricanes have taken a toll, according a report released Tuesday by the South Florida Water Management District.
"The current condition of Herbert Hoover Dike poses a grave and imminent danger to the people and the environment of south Florida," the report said.
An unnamed hurricane swamped the levees around Lake Okeechobee in 1928, killing 2,500 people at a time when the region was far less populous.
Water managers hired a team of engineers to examine the Hoover Dike last year after Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,300 people along the U.S. Gulf Coast, many of them after the levees around New Orleans were breached.
Hurricane winds can suddenly whip up a wall of water up to 15 feet high and send it sloshing over the dike, swirling it around the perimeter of the lake like water in a teacup as the storm rotates, the engineers said.
Craig Fugate, Florida's director of emergency management, said the state is working with local officials to create a regional plan to evacuate up to 40,000 residents living south of the dike, who may be in immediate danger from even a weak hurricane.