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.
On one side lies Lake Okeechobee, which covers about 730 square miles. It is prized for bass fishing.
On the land side stand houses and trailers, some still wrapped in the blue tarp used to cover roofs after Hurricane Wilma, and fields rising from the rich black dirt that gives this city its motto: "Her Soil Is Her Fortune."
As in the other communities near the lake, Belle Glade's population of 15,000 is predominantly black and relatively poor. The median household income in the 2000 census was $22,715.
Preventing these communities from being overwhelmed by Lake Okeechobee is the Herbert Hoover Dike, which was constructed of gravel, rock, limestone sand and shell dredged from the lake bottom. Much of it was built in the 1930s.
Portions of the dike "bear a striking resemblance to Swiss cheese," according to the engineers' report, which extensively cites Army Corps of Engineers documents.
Those gaps and seepages of lake water lead to erosion in the dike and potentially, disaster.
Representatives of the Corps of Engineers have disputed aspects of the report, but also said that much of it only reiterates previously known findings about vulnerabilities.
"We were not surprised by the findings and we are in total agreement that Herbert Hoover Dike is in need of rehabilitation" according to a Corps statement.
The Corps has undertaken a $300 million repair project, but it depends upon continued congressional funding and may not be completed for 20 years.
Where the Corps of Engineers and the independent engineers differ is on the likelihood of disaster. Corps officials reject the idea that the dike has a 1 in 6 annual chance of failure because the Corps corrects the small erosion episodes before they can turn into catastrophic gaps.
"We always have rocks and sandbags stockpiled on site," Corps spokeswoman Nanciann Regalado said. "And we use them when necessary."
Exactly how strong the dike is -- and what kind of hurricane could blow a hole in it -- is not precisely known.
Part of the problem is that the answer depends upon water levels in the lake; the higher the water, the higher the pressure and the more vulnerable the dike.
The Corps tries to keep water levels relatively low during hurricane season, but it cannot go too low: Lake Okeechobee is a source of water for South Florida residents, local farms and the Everglades.
When it rains, the water enters the lake many times faster than it can be let out through canals. At least twice since 1995, lake levels have risen to 18 feet, a level that creates strong outward pressures on the dike.
"At that point, we would be concerned about any hurricane," Regalado said. "We'd be foolish not to."