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As Tropical Storm Ernesto pummels south Florida with wind and rain, one place engineers and emergency management officials are watching is Lake Okeechobee. The fourth-largest lake entirely within the U.S. is ringed by a massive 70-year-old earthen levee.
According to engineers, there's a risk that one of these days, the Herbert Hoover Dike could fail, flooding nearby communities with disastrous results.
It has happened before. In 1926 and again in 1928, flooding from hurricanes overwhelmed older levees and killed thousands of people. Now the Army Corps of Engineers is trying to keep that from happening again.
From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN reporting:
Ken Lutz(ph) has lived, worked and fished near Lake Okeechobee his whole life.
Mr. KEN LUTZ (Resident of Lake Okeechobee Area): In I think it was the '49 hurricane, that farmland out there - that was farmland. We took boats out there and fished floating over the top of the land, so that's how high the water got. You can get an awful lot of water down here.
ALLEN: Lutz was born in 1933, five years after the storm in which Okeechobee claimed at least 2,500 lives. On this day he's surveying the lake from atop the massive levee that keeps the 730-square-mile Okeechobee from inundating nearby communities. Lutz grew up in Belle Glade, the town hit hardest by the '28 flood. He remembers his neighbors' stories and how farmers in the area would sometimes unearth the bones of storm victims, years later, when they were plowing their fields. He says the flood happened after hurricane winds sloshed the water in the large, shallow lake first to one side and then to the other with disastrous results.
Mr. LUTZ: You had a northwest wind. It just takes that water and piles it up. Well, it piled it up against that dike and it didn't take much to wash that through.
ALLEN: And at that point, then it went south, then, toward Belle Glade more?
Mr. LUTZ: Yeah. Of course it flowed out, but most of the damage was down there to Belle Glade because the water was flowing in that direction.
ALLEN: An accurate count of the dead was never taken. The victims were buried in mass graves, leading many to place the death toll higher than 2,500. Except for a few old-timers, not many in Belle Glade today recall the flood or have first-hand knowledge of what the large, placid Okeechobee can become. Earlier this year, though, a report commissioned by Florida water managers reminded people in Belle Glade and other nearby towns of a peril many had forgotten.
Mr. STEVE DUBA (Army Corps of Engineers): The problem with Herbert Hoover Dike is real. It's a serious thing. People need to be aware of it, particularly the folks living around the lake.
ALLEN: Few people know more about the massive 140-mile-long earthen levee that encircles Okeechobee than Steve Duba, chief of engineering for the Army Corps of Engineers in Florida. Long before the state report, Duba and others in the Corps had been raising warnings about the dike and planning work to reduce the risk of failure. The problems, Duba says, arise from the way the levee was built. It was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1930s using materials found on site.
Mr. DUBA: It was built to no engineered standards we recognize today. It was basically a muck levee. It was built from material dredged from the inside of the lake and deposited primarily with dredges. So it was piled up, essentially. There was no engineered core to it. There was no compacted embankment or foundation design that essentially went into it, but it's extremely massive.
ALLEN: And that's where its strength lies. At its base, the dike is 300 feet wide. Elevation in some sections is 45 feet high, several orders of magnitude larger than the levees that surround New Orleans. But like New Orleans's levees, Okeechobee's dike has a big problem. It leaks.
Engineers say while some seepage is normal, Okeechobee's leaks sometimes begin washing material out of the dike. South Florida water manager Bob Howard says if those leaks aren't found and plugged, the results can be catastrophic.
Mr. BOB HOWARD (South Florida Water Manager): As that erodes into the levee taking material with it, the path along which seepage occurs becomes shorter. The shorter it is, the faster it flows, and you find this condition that actually accelerates, and it can lead to a rather rapid failure.
ALLEN: Although water managers, engineers, elected officials and increasingly the public are aware of the problem with the Okeechobee levee, fixing it will be neither quick nor easy. Repairs will cost some $300 million and at the current rate at which their work is approved by Congress, Corps officials say it could take at least 20 years. In the meantime, the Army Corps of Engineers has inspectors combing the levee looking for leaks and just as important, managers are keeping water levels in the lake as low as possible.
Bob Howard of the South Florida Water Management District says experience shows that's not always possible. In 2004 he recalls how a series of hurricanes quickly raised the lake by several feet. And then Hurricane Ivan came through, just narrowly missing Okeechobee and its feeder lakes. That's a scenario Howard fears could be repeated.
Mr. HOWARD: In a lot of respects we're always just within one storm producing enough rainfall that is that extreme circumstances that might be our worst nightmare.
ALLEN: With forecasts showing Ernesto tracking perilously close to Okeechobee, engineers and water managers have been busy this week doing everything they can to get the lake and the dike ready for the storm.
Mr. STEVE SULLIVAN (Operations Manager, Lake Okeechobee): And it's just fairly typical of much of the levee, fairly well defined crown, side slopes, grassy sides.
ALLEN: Steve Sullivan is the operations manager at the lake. With his staff of 60, he's been securing barges and heavy equipment and pre-positioning equipment and material so his crew can go right to work repairing any damage to the levee after Ernesto passes through.
Sullivan says given the preparations and low water level in the lake, he's not too worried by Ernesto. He notes that Florida saw a record eight hurricanes over the last two years, and the Herbert Hoover Dike, he says, came through without any major damage.
Mr. SULLIVAN: I mean, the damage that I looked at and I saw, I considered operations and maintenance, and that's what we do here. We come back out and we fix the things that go wrong. Yeah, if you left them go, something worse would happen. Sure, everybody knows that. If we don't take care of our houses after the first storm blows our roof off, then yeah, the next storm is going to be even worse for us. So I view it more of a - look at what the levee's been subjected to, look what has been the impact and look how it has performed. I'm pretty proud of the way this thing has performed and the way our people take care of it.
ALLEN: Even so, emergency managers in Palm Beach County are working on a mandatory evacuation plan for the 40,000 people who live in Belle Glade and other lakeside communities. No such order is in effect for Ernesto, but officials say they have to be ready if the lake and the levee begin to pose a threat.
One question, though, is whether residents would heed an evacuation order. Many who live in Belle Glade are agricultural workers with few resources. And then there are long-time residents like Ken Lutz, who has lived with the lake so long he has a hard time considering it a threat.
Mr. LUTZ: Do I think it'll break? No. Can it break? Heck yeah, it can break. I don't mean to dismiss it at all, because each person has to decide based on their best experience.
ALLEN: A few years ago, Belle Glade built something to help remind residents of the threat posed by Okeechobee. It's out front of the town library, a memorial to the victims of the 1928 hurricane.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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