Glades Residents Afraid Lake Okeechobee Dam Could Fail As Water Reaches Above 17 Feet

Oct 18, 2017

There’s a potential crisis building around Lake Okeechobee.

The massive freshwater lake is about half the size of the state of Rhode Island and holds more than a trillion gallons of water — enough to cover all of Manhattan 23 stories high.

All that water is being held back by a troubled earthen dam that surrounds the lake: the Herbert Hoover Dike. For years, experts have concluded it’s a disaster waiting for high water to happen.

And now the water’s high.

Rain from Hurricane Irma and other storms has caused the water in Lake Okeechobee to jump three feet as the rain has slowly trickled its way through streams and tributaries and into the lake.

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.

“It’s fearful,” said Janet Taylor of Clewiston. “If it breaches, what is going to happen to us?"

Like all of Lake Okeechobee, the water level at the Pahokee Marina has jumped three feet since Hurricane Irma.
Credit Peter Haden / WLRN

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

“Half of them didn’t have the funds to evacuate,” said Taylor. “To just go to bed one night, then wake up the next morning and say, ‘You’ve got to leave.’  It was devastating to the communities.”

The dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee is 143 miles long. Decades of erosion have weakened it. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been working to reinforce it for the past 10 years. The $1.7 billion project isn’t scheduled to be completed until 2025 and is subject to changes in federal funding.

So for now, the Corps is doing daily inspections to look for signs of trouble and fix them before they get worse. Engineers expect the lake to crest soon without major problems, according to Army Corps District Commander Col. Jason Kirk.

“If we see any distress, your Army team has a plan to do any necessary of control of those distress areas,” Kirk said.

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 early in the 20th Century.

“Thousands and thousands of people perished,” said Tammy Jackson-Moore of South Bay.

Jackson-Moore co-founded Guardians of the Glades, a nonprofit advocacy group. In 1928, an earlier version of the dam failed when a massive hurricane roared over the lake. Catastrophic flooding killed more than 2,500 people.

“The majority of the people that passed were African-American farm workers,” said Moore. “The poor black people lived in shacks and shanty houses. They couldn't withstand the winds and the rains.”

Some people climbed trees to escape the water, only to be bitten by poisonous snakes that were also taking refuge in the trees.

It took weeks for the water to recede.

“The bodies started rotting,” said Jackson-Moore, “just floating in the water. Some of the bodies were dead amongst other animals — wildlife and cattle. And that's why you see the mass grave.”

Around 1,600 bodies were buried in a mass grave on the east side of the lake near Port Mayaca. It’s now part of a larger cemetery surrounded by palmetto trees and oaks draped in Spanish moss.

Pastor Albert L. Polk IV says his Belle Glade congregation is concerned about the water level in Lake Okeechobee. “I pray to God that the dam don’t break!” Polk said.
Credit Peter Haden / WLRN

Many people in the Glades have relatives buried in the mass grave, including Pastor Albert L. Polk IV.

“Three of those people, we carry the same blood,” he said.

Pastor Polk has lived in South Bay all his life. He says  his congregation is concerned about the water level in the lake.

“You've got so many gallons of water that is sitting pressure on a weak dike,” Polk said.

Polk said he knows he can’t swallow all that water.

“So I pray to God that the dam doesn’t break!” he said.

And with a month and a half left in hurricane season, everyone in the Glades is praying more storms don’t come.