South Florida Worries About Possible Dike Failure

Oct 27, 2017
Originally published on October 27, 2017 11:08 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's a potential crisis building at Florida's Lake Okeechobee. The massive lake is surrounded by an earthen dike, but that barrier that's holding all the water back has been deteriorating. For years, experts have said it is a disaster waiting for high water to happen. And as Peter Haden of member station WLRN tells us now, the water is high.

PETER HADEN, BYLINE: Rain from Hurricane Irma and other storms has caused the water in Lake Okeechobee to jump 3 feet. Now the water is above 17 feet, an alarming level not seen in more than a decade. And in the Glades communities, people living around the southern half of the lake, there's concern the dike could collapse.

JANET TAYLOR: It's fearful...

HADEN: Janet Taylor lives in Clewiston.

TAYLOR: ...That if it breach, what is going to happen to us? We are in constant danger if this water keeps rising in Lake Okeechobee.

HADEN: One day before the arrival of Hurricane Irma last month, Florida Governor Rick Scott ordered an emergency evacuation of the entire Glades region over fears of flooding from the lake. It was an unprecedented step.

TAYLOR: Half of them didn't have the funds to evacuate. And, you know, to just get up one night, go to bed and then wake up the next morning say, you've got to leave, it was devastating to the communities.

HADEN: The dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee is 143 miles long. Decades of erosion have weakened it. And for the past 10 years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been working to reinforce the dike, but the project isn't scheduled to be done until 2025. So for now, the Corps is doing daily inspections, looking for signs of trouble and fixing them before they get worse. Army Corps District Commander Colonel Jason Kirk says engineers expect the lake to crest soon without major problems.

JASON KIRK: If we see any signs of distress, our army team has a plan to do any necessary control of those distressed areas.

HADEN: That plan includes having material already in place, dirt and rock and other things, the Corps could use to basically plug the hole if the dike were to breach. But that's not terribly reassuring to the people who live in the shadow of the dike with the specter of the last time it broke.

TAMMY JACKSON-MOORE: Thousands and thousands of people perished.

HADEN: Tammy Jackson-Moore is a Glades community advocate. In 1928, an earlier version of the dike failed during a massive hurricane. Catastrophic flooding killed more than 2,500 people.

JACKSON-MOORE: The bodies started rotting just floating in the water. Some of the bodies were dead amongst other animals and wildlife, some cattle. And that's why you see the mass grave.

HADEN: Sixteen hundred people were buried here. It's a grassy plot surrounded by palm trees. It's part of a larger cemetery now. And just about everyone I talked to can name a relative who rests here, including Pastor Albert L. Polk IV.

ALBERT L. POLK: We are concerned. You've got so many, many gallons of water that is sitting pressure on a weak dike.

HADEN: So when Pastor Polk looks out from his house, beyond his neighbors and his church to the mammoth lake...

POLK: I can't swallow all that water, so my first thought is I pray to God that the dam don't break.

HADEN: And with hurricane season not ending for weeks, everyone in the Glades is praying the storms don't come. For NPR News, I'm Peter Haden in South Bay, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.