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Bracing For Flooding at Hurricane Time in Already Soggy Florida

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Around the clock, from a control room on the edge of the Everglades, technicians track water levels in the canals, lakes and marshes across the southern part of Florida. On their computer screens, they can see changes hundreds of miles away and with a few key strokes they open and shut flood gates.

The flood controls in South Florida are among the most sophisticated in the world and they get a workout most summers. Summer is the wet season here, a time of downpours so dense that you can see no more than 50 or 60 yards. Summer is also the time of hurricanes and tropical storms. And those wind machines can dump a lot of rain.

This summer, forecasters are predicting a busier than usual storm season with as many as 14 hurricanes. Floods and storm surge, a kind of tidal wave that hurricanes sometimes push across beaches, kill more people in hurricane season than the wind. The wind gets the headlines, the water brings out the undertakers.

No one knows where the storms will come ashore. But this could be a very bad year for South Florida. The land is soggy from more rain than usual in the months leading up to hurricane season, and it would not take much to cause flooding. The biggest flood threat in the region is Lake Okeechobee, the wide, shallow bowl of water about 45 miles west of here. The water in the lake, one of the largest in the United States, is already high, and experts worry that the lake's earthen, 35-foot-high dike might not hold.

Killer floods are not routinely heavy on the minds of the technicians in the control room of the South Florida Water Management District here. A few feet of water may rise in backyards and parking lots and push into houses and shops and offices and the ground floors of condos. It can make life miserable and expensive for the 7.5 million people packed into South Florida, and for the farmers and ranchers working the land back from the coasts. The costs can quickly get into the hundreds of millions of dollars. But deaths are rare. Trouble at Lake Okeechobee, however, could be a nightmare.

Nothing awful has happened at the lake in more than 80 years, but memories are still vivid of the flooding in two hurricanes in the 1920s. Several thousand people died. In the worst Lake Okeechobee flood, in 1928, high water covered a stretch of 75 miles of the flat, Florida landscape. Some of that land is still Everglades swamp. But much of it is now thick with houses and shopping centers.

Since the early 1980s, concerns about another disaster at Lake Okeechobee have been growing. Water has been seeping under the 143-mile-long mud, gravel and rock dike that the United States Army Corps of Engineers began building in the 1930s. A report four years ago by the South Florida Water Management District said the dike posed "a grave and imminent danger to the people and the environment of South Florida." Portions of the dike, the report said, "bear a striking resemblance to Swiss cheese."

The Corps of Engineers began reinforcing the southeastern wall of the dike, which is considered the most hazardous section, three years ago. But about half of the work in that 22-mile stretch remains to be done.

The water in the lake was at about 14.5 feet in early June or about two feet higher than what the Corps of Engineers and the water district consider prudent. The higher the water gets, engineers say, the higher the probability that the dike will give way and release an avalanche of water. Perhaps 60,000 people live south of Lake Okeechobee where flooding is most likely.

"It would probably kill many, many people," said Eric Buermann, the chairman of the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District. "You could have a lot of flooding in downtown Fort Lauderdale."

Twice in the mid-1990s, water in the lake rose to more than 18 feet. The dike did not yield. But Nanciann Regalado, a spokeswoman for the Corps of Engineers, said that at 17.5 feet, "we get very, very concerned." At 19 feet, she said, the authorities would consider evacuation.

Trying to keep the lake from rising further, the Corps of Engineers and the water district have been flushing water from the lake into two main rivers and into huge holding ponds in the Everglades. But it rains almost every day around the lake and the rest of South Florida in June and early July, and the pumps struggle to keep up. The engineers say that in the most intense rains, the kind that come with hurricanes and tropical storms, the lake can rise six times faster than the pumps can draw down the water.

"We're concerned," Mr. Buermann said in an interview. "We're taking measures to address this. But if you have the ultimate storm with wind pushing that water, the force of that water on the dike, anything could happen."

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