Big Easy Could Have Learned From Lake Okeechobee Flood

Thu September 29, 2005 - National Edition
Jill Barton - Associated Press

LAKE OKEECHOBEE, FL (AP) A massive hurricane washes out 20 mi. of dike, flooding homes and cities and drowning thousands, most of them too poor to heed warnings to evacuate. Authorities in Florida learned from the 1928 disaster at Lake Okeechobee and have spent decades building a bigger, stronger levee around the lake, one of the nation’s largest.

But those lessons weren’t adopted in New Orleans, and officials there must now learn from what could be an even deadlier tragedy.

The devastation wrought by Katrina and the Lake Okeechobee hurricanes are sadly similar. In 1928, Florida officials knew a big storm could flood the farming communities surrounding Lake Okeechobee with devastating consequences.

They had a warning two years earlier, when a hurricane clipped a corner of the lake and caused a breach that drowned 150 people in rural Moore Haven. When the 1928 hurricane hit, authorities had been talking about the need for a stronger dike but political wrangling put off construction, said Eliot Kleinberg, author of “Black Cloud: The Deadly Hurricane of 1928.”

“Everybody knew the dike could break and there could be flooding,” Kleinberg said. “But they were unwilling to imagine the unimaginable.”

The unimaginable happened when a catastrophic hurricane came ashore in Palm Beach and pushed 30 mi. inland to Lake Okeechobee. The levee failed and a 20-mi. wall of water rushed out of the lake. People watched the water swallow houses as they climbed desperately into attics or trees for safety.

“What happened in New Orleans in a matter of days, happened in Lake Okeechobee in a matter of hours,” Kleinberg said.

John Hendry saw his house blown down around him and he took his wife and three young children into the yard where he tied them in a tree to protect them from the wind and rising water. When the floods reached their feet, he moved his family farther up the tree to escape, said Bill Barnes, who was 7 at the time and later became Hendry’s stepson.

The water stayed for six weeks before receding. More than 2,500 died. Most were poor, black farmworkers from the Caribbean who had no cars and no way out of the storm’s path.

New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain were even more vulnerable when Katrina hit. A city below sea level fills with water more easily and a lake connected to the Gulf is susceptible to tidal surges. Katrina caused two levees to break, spilling dirty water into more than 80 percent of the city as high as 20 ft. Estimates of the death toll have surpassed 10,000 people. Many of the dead also were too poor to escape. Scott Hagen, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at University of Central Florida, said the levee system isn’t designed for the slim chance that a disastrous event will occur.

“There’s always a chance we can have an extreme event,” Hagen said. “But it comes down to cost. How much are we as a society willing to invest? And how much risk are we willing to live with?”

In Florida, where an unprecedented four hurricanes slammed the coast last year, authorities have spent decades trying to lessen the risk to residents. At Lake Okeechobee, which covers 700 sq. mi. in south-central Florida, engineers have taken into account two worst-case scenario storms to design the dam.

Corps officials have planned for a Category 3 storm hitting the lake at an unlikely high level of more than 21 ft. After last year’s four hurricanes, the lake reached only 18 ft. Engineers also have planned for a double hit, studying what would happen if a hurricane such as the Category 5 Andrew in 1992 came across from the east and a second storm hit from the southwest, said Susan Sylvester, a Corps hydraulic engineer and water management specialist.

If a hurricane causes a breach, water managers have 50,000 tons of material to repair the dike at 16 locations around the lake. They can drive on the 15-ft. wide crest to reach the breaches — something officials could not do on the skinny Lake Pontchartrain levee.

To repair the breach there, military helicopters dropped 150 sandbags, each weighing 3,000 lbs., to temporarily plug holes.

Lake Okeechobee’s levee suffered no damage during last year’s four hurricanes — though 11 structures on the east side of the lake were damaged, said Jacob Davis, the dike’s project engineer.

Still, the levee is not perfect. It has leaks and boils that require sandbags and repairs. Corps officials are rehabilitating a 4.6-mi. stretch near Port Mayaca that will eventually reach 22 mi. south to Belle Glade.

But the lake has natural protections. Because it sits 30 mi. inland, a hurricane is likely to lose strength once it leaves the warm ocean waters. The wind could slosh the lake water over the top of the levee but it would never be affected by the storm surge at the coast.