An 800-Pound Gorilla Waits to Escape in S. Florida

Paul Dixon, who lives nearby, strolls through an eroded portion of the 25-foot-high dike that extends for 140 miles around Lake Okeechobee.
Paul Dixon, who lives nearby, strolls through an eroded portion of the 25-foot-high dike that extends for 140 miles around Lake Okeechobee. (By Allen Eyestone -- Palm Beach Post Via Associated Press)
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 21, 2006

BELLE GLADE, Fla. -- One of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history happened in this farming community beside Lake Okeechobee, and for people here, the Hurricane of 1928 is an inescapable piece of city lore.

A prominent statue at the city's crossroads depicts a family running from the floodwaters that gushed through the lake's dike, and the popular novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God" hitched literary fame to the disaster that claimed more than 2,000 lives.

But people had always assumed the danger was long past.

Now engineers hired by a state agency are reporting that weaknesses in the vast dike around the lake again pose a "grave and imminent danger to the people and the environment of South Florida." Every year, according to engineers, the dike has a 1 in 6 chance of failing.

"I was stunned -- for all these years, there's been no red flag ever raised, then this report comes out," said Commissioner Warren Newell, who represents Palm Beach County on a board covering the lake area. "Now we're running around trying to get evacuation plans in place, mobilize equipment and find shelters for thousands of people."

Indeed, the warning has come as a shock in a place where residents had long clung to a faith that the rebuilt dike, about 25 feet high, encircling the lake would protect them from another catastrophe. For miles around, it is the highest and most visible feature in the flat Florida landscape.

"Now a lot of people are nervous," said Garvin Hooker, a drugstore manager here. "Some people say the dike's going to break, some people say it won't, but I'm not going to chance it with my family."

In the midst of a hurricane season expected to be busy, state and local leaders are scrambling to develop evacuation plans if the dike bursts or is overtopped. Residents accustomed to hunkering down during storms are anxiously reevaluating their family strategies. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is again besieged by questions about the safety of one of its projects, as it has been about the levees around New Orleans.

If the dike fails, the flow from the lake could submerge vast areas, threaten water supplies in much of South Florida and cause tens of billions of dollars in damage, according to the report, ordered by the South Florida Water Management District and performed by independent engineers Leslie G. Bromwell, Robert G. Dean and Steven G. Vick. The report was requested after questions arose when Hurricane Wilma damaged the dike and Hurricane Katrina showed how deadly hurricane flooding could be.

"Last night, I received a very troubling report . . . about the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike," Gov. Jeb Bush (R) wrote to Army civil works officials in late April. "I am very concerned about a potential failure of the dike and the enormous impacts such a catastrophe could have on our state. . . . I urge you to take immediate action to avert a potential disaster."

About 40,000 people live around Lake Okeechobee, one of the nation's largest freshwater lakes.

The 140-mile dike that protects them is essentially a grassy hill. Standing atop it, a person can see for miles.

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