PAHOKEE, FL (AP) Rest easy was the message.
Engineers had completed 85 mi. (137 km) of the dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee to ensure history would never repeat itself. Thousands died in two 1920s hurricanes when the lake broke its banks.
“This dike has cured the bad habit of tropical hurricanes of using this lake as a weapon of destruction,” former President Herbert Hoover said at the 1961 ceremony dedicating the southern portion of the dike that bears his name.
“Since this great dike was built, five evil hurricanes have tried their best at destruction around this lake, but they have been foiled in every attack,” he said.
Today, fears are renewed as the aging earthen wall is undergoing a massive restoration by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A recent study by a state-hired panel of experts revealed the dike is in imminent danger of failing in another major hurricane, threatening up to 60,000 residents. After Hurricane Katrina submerged New Orleans, the task of repairing the dike has taken on new urgency.
But there’s no quick fix.
Construction began in 1932 and by 1970, the corps had encircled 143 mi. (230 km) of shoreline with muck, sand and shell fragments piled up to 35 ft. (11 m) high.
Measuring 730 sq. mi. (1,890 sq km), about half the size of Rhode Island, Lake Okeechobee sits in the heart of Florida’s Everglades and is surrounded by some of the richest farming soil in the state. It’s the second largest freshwater lake in the contiguous United States.
The job of shoring up the Herbert Hoover Dike could take 25 years at a cost of more $300 million, said the Army Corps’ Steve Duba, chief engineer in charge of the project.
“It’s 75 years old. It’s got problems. It’s got a history of seepage,” Duba said. “It wasn’t built anything close to current design standards.”
When work is complete, “It will essentially be an impervious wall which will control seepage … and that’s a permanent repair,” he added.
In some places, the corps will simply replace flood gates and culverts, while in other sections the dike will be practically dismantled and rebuilt.
The first portion of the project encompasses a 22.5-mi. (36.2 km) segment on the southeast shore near the farming town of Pahokee where approximately 5,000 people live.
Engineers were working to sink a wall made of a cement mixture 36 ft. (11 m) deep and 2 ft. (0.6 m) thick into the center of the dike, but the project was recently halted after officials encountered problems with sand and soil filling the trench.
Alternate plans are under review. It’s unclear when work will resume.
“It’s not all science. Some of it is technique and a little bit of art thrown in to do these cutoff walls,” Duba said.
Still, the corps insists the dike will hold. The lake level is lowered ahead of an approaching storm, lessening the chance that pressure could burst the berm.
It brings little solace to some who live in the dike’s shadow.
Larry Wright has lived in Pahokee nearly all his life. He was there when Hoover proclaimed the dike “proof of alertness.”
“They dedicated it as this fantastic new thing. I remember being amazed,” Wright recalled. “What’s on most people’s minds much more now is how the heck are they going to get all of us out of here if it does breach.”
Approximately 10 mi. south along the lake in Belle Glade, Mayor Ray Sanchez is also concerned.
“We just want them to get the work done as quick as possible,” Sanchez said. “We’re in hurricane season now, so we’re worried.”
Les Bromwell, of BCI Engineers & Scientists Inc., one of the lead authors of the study that found the dike bears “a striking resemblance to Swiss cheese,” said the corps should also consider raising the height of the dike as well creating an impervious wall.
“The concept, we believe, is a correct one,” Bromwell said. “But our concern is that we don’t feel the wall is being carried deep enough to cut off all the potential pathways for erosion … We also feel it needs to be done higher … so the wall itself won’t be overtopped.”
Nobody wants a repeat of the 1926 hurricane that killed 4,243 people throughout Florida, Mississippi and Alabama. Many of Florida’s dead lived along Lake Okeechobee when it overflowed its banks. An estimated 2,500 people were killed in Florida in the 1928 hurricane when the lake again sprang free.
But not everyone shares the same concerns. Many longtime residents have confidence in the corps.
“I am in no way in panic mode,” said Pahokee Mayor J.P. Sasser. “The absolute strongest structure out here in the Glades is the Herbert Hoover levee. By the time that 100-year storm comes and the conditions exist for it to breach, there won’t be any communities left to flood. We would have blown long, long away.”
Corps flood maps show that if the lake were at 21 ft. (6.4 m) in a major hurricane today and a breach were to occur on the south side, flooding could extend approximately 32 mi. (51 km) and remain inundated for up to 45 days as the dike was repaired.
Officials call this a doomsday scenario since water levels are kept low to prevent such a catastrophe. The lake recently was at less than 12.5 ft. (3.8 m), its lowest level in approximately four years.
“This is impossible,” Duba said. “This cannot happen. It’s like an apocalypse.”
“But that’s what we have to plan for,” added Charles Tear, Palm Beach County’s emergency management chief.