FL dam failure could hit 40,000

A major failure of the Herbert Hoover Dike on Lake Okeechobee could affect 40,000 people, threaten South Florida's water supplies, and jeopardize one of the richest environmental areas in the country.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | July 10, 2006

A major failure of the Herbert Hoover Dike on Lake Okeechobee could affect 40,000 people, threaten South Florida's water supplies, and jeopardize one of the richest environmental areas in the country.

But repairs are slow to come, even though one highly publicized report said the levee bears "a striking resemblance to Swiss cheese."

The good news: A few weeks ago, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee approved close to $40 million to help pay for repairs on the levee.

The money comes a month after a report written for the South Florida Water Management District warned that the dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee is in 'extreme danger' of failing. A dam breach could affect some 40,000 people and threaten urban water supplies to the southeast.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for nine measures to stave off disaster, such as speeding up repairs, inspecting the dike daily and keeping the lake at lower levels in hurricane season.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - while acknowledging the levee needs repairs - insists that the report outlines a "worst-case scenario," and that the levee will hold during a hurricane.

Meanwhile, repairs have started and stopped as contractors struggle with the method being used to fortify the barrier.

The whole process has at least some residents frustrated with bureaucracy as they quietly review local evacuation plans.

Many residents believe that politics and bureaucracy have impeded progress on levee strengthening, said Dr. Sheila L. Chamberlain, chair of the Glades Area Recovery Team (GART).

GART's mission is to advocate for and assist faith-based, government entities, and other organizations and agencies that provide coordinated recovery to hurricane disaster survivors in the Glades Area of Palm Beach County.

At least some residents are questioning the timing of major political announcements related to the levee. The most publicized reports seemed to surface right after Hurricane Wilma in 2005, then right before the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season began in June.

As GART case managers interact with residents, they report seeing a mixture of anxiety and suspicion regarding the actual state of the levee, said Chamberlain.

On a local level, residents have been trying to prepare. Each city in the area has held a town hall meeting about the levee. "Further, the county emergency management division has been in the area to ease any anxiety and discuss possible evacuation plans," said Chamberlain.

Like any community, the Everglades area neighborhoods are home to people with special needs. Evacuation plans must take into account the needs of elderly people, persons with disabilities, individuals with mental health needs - and many other cases that require more lead time to safely evacuate.

In a "worst-case scenario," a levee breach would not only impact the lives of 40,000 people - it would severely damage a fragile agricultural and environmental area as well, pointed out Chamberlain.

Lake Okeechobee is in the heart of Florida's Everglades and is surrounded by some of the richest farming soil in the state.

"The effect of a breach of the dike would produce an ecological imbalance affecting all South Florida communities from the Glades down to the Florida Bay/Keys. The entire water system would be affected as well," said Chamberlain.

While these scenarios are widely acknowledged, there are a significant number of people who feel like they're being driven off their land by what they believe are scare tactics surrounding the levee.

"The levee is not a great concern to my people," said the Rev. John Mericantante, pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church in Pahokee, Florida. "In fact, many believe that it is the 'white' man's way of getting the poor 'brown' (Hispanic) and poor black off the land to make way for the future homes to be built in Pahokee as the next affluent lakeside region."

Nonetheless, his community is preparing itself, said Mericantante. "We had a meeting about a possible emergency exit plan - but most would rather stay with their homes or just go to Belle Glade to the shelter or the South Florida fair grounds."

Some people mentioned they would evacuate to Georgia - but when they calculated the personal cost, they realized that was impossible, he added. "Most say that gas and hotel expenses would prohibit that course of action."

Local recovery leaders agreed it's wise to be prepared, no matter what you believe about the levee. "When we developed our mission statement, we formed with the idea we would assist with any natural disaster and any man-made disaster - including a levee disaster," said Trish Adams, executive director of Community Rebuilding Ecumenical Workforce Inc., a nonprofit organization that is currently helping hundreds of residents in the area make a long-term recovery from Hurricane Wilma.

"I talked to a friend of mine who works for the Corps of Engineers," she said. "He said the likelihood of it breaking is very low - but they're not ruling it out."

In January, the Corps began a $300 million project to strengthen the dike, which ground to a halt after a contractor encountered problems with the method being used to fortify the barrier. Excess sand in the levee compromised the original plan of pouring bentonite, a clay material, into a 4.6-mile section earthen wall near Port Mayaca.

Work is expected to resume with engineers trying a mixture of concrete and bentonite. The project will take years to complete.

Meanwhile, Palm Beach County officials have planned to cope with an evacuation of the Glades area and expect to use buses to shuttle residents to shelters. A Glades evacuation would begin two days before a coastal evacuation.

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