Residents of the towns that line the southern rim of Florida's Lake Okeechobee know about the benefits and risks of living next to one of the nation's largest freshwater lakes.
Many have relatives who survived the massive flood of 1926 — and another, two years later, when a Category 4 hurricane blew through the area. Old mud dikes failed, killing at least 2,500 people.
In 2005, the failure of levees in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina hit led authorities to re-evaluate the 143-mile Herbert Hoover Dike that surrounds Lake Okeechobee. The results were alarming. The report uncovered erosion problems that, if left uncorrected, could lead to a failure of the old earthen levee.
Stuart Appelbaum with the Army Corps of Engineers says the corps moved quickly to address the problem.
"Best thing we've done is manage the risk by lowering the lake a bit," he says.
For the past three years, the corps has made sure the lake's water level reaches no higher than 15 feet, well below capacity. At the same time, the corps is working to strengthen the 80-year-old levee that 40,000 local residents depend on for safety.
'The Dike Is Eroding Itself From The Inside'
On a few sections of the dike, rehabilitation work is well under way. A key portion is on Lake Okeechobee's southeast rim, near Belle Glade, the town hit hardest by the 1928 flood. This area is still considered the highest risk, and the corps is working here first to strengthen the levee.
Huge shovels, trucks and other heavy equipment dig a deep trench 70 feet down through the center of the dike. They then fill the trench with a concrete mixture to create what's called a "cutoff wall."
Mike Rogalski, who's in charge of the project, says that when the lake level rises, water seeps through the levee, washing away material.
"It's essentially that the dike is eroding itself from the inside," he says. "What this cutoff wall does is cuts off all those paths of erosion."
The massive project is expected to cost $1 billion and take at least 20 years to complete. After a year of work, just about two-and-a-half miles have been strengthened.
To ensure that the dike remains safe while the work is being carried out, a team of inspectors constantly monitors the dike, shoring up sections that it finds weakened by erosion.
"When the lake levels reach a certain point during the wet season, you're going to do daily inspections," Rogalski says.
Boosting Morale For The Residents Of Pahokee
On the southeast rim of Lake Okeechobee, Pahokee's several thousand residents sit in the levee's shadow. It's literally in their backyard.
Pahokee Mayor Wayne Whitaker says the work under way has already helped restore confidence in the dike and his community.
"There was some industry back in the day that wouldn't come to Pahokee or the Glades area because they were scared of the dike," Whitaker says. "People actually thought the dike was going to break at any time. But this rehab is really going to help the morale of everybody."
The concerns surrounding the lake and the dike now are less about safety and more about something that up until now has been plentiful: water. For decades, water seeping under Lake Okeechobee's levee has kept irrigation ditches full and the water table high. That's been a boon to farmers in the area.
If the corps is successful in stopping that seepage, farmers are concerned that a safer levee may come at a cost — leaving them with drier and less productive fields.