Dike Along Huge Florida Lake Is Leaking

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A sculpture at the Belle Glade public library depicts a young family of four fleeing the flood, looking up at the wall of water that is about to engulf them.

"We always try to remember to honor those who lost their lives in the '28 storm," said Brenda Bunting, executive director of the Belle Glade Chamber of Commerce.

Work started on the Herbert Hoover Dike in the early 1930s after a much smaller levee collapsed during the catastrophic hurricane of September 1928.

Some compare attempts to control the waters of Lake Okeechobee to grabbing the tail of an endangered Florida panther. The leaks and recent active hurricane seasons have caused lakeside residents to keep a closer eye on the dike.

Bunting said there was more uneasiness as Hurricane Wilma headed toward the lake in October 2005.

The dike held, but residents still got a dramatic reminder of the power of wind and water.

Charles Corbin owns Slim's Fish Camp, a restaurant his father opened in 1935 on Torrey's Island, a small island in the southeastern corner of the lake.

Corbin said a wind-driven storm surge put his restaurant under about seven feet (two meters) of water.

"The surge came across the lake like a tidal wave or a tsunami," Corbin said. "It went up real fast and went right back down."

The business owner doesn't think the dike is likely to fail because of a hurricane, unless the storm stalls over the lake.

"Hurricane Wilma stayed only about four hours," Corbin said.

"If a hurricane stalled and stayed a day or so, you might have problems."

Could Tragedy Strike Again?

Scott Hagen, an engineering professor at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, said it's unlikely the dike will fail because of a hurricane.

"If they keep the water at the appropriate level in Lake Okeechobee, the chances of having water surging up and over the dike are very, very low," he said.

But it's not out of the question. If a tropical storm dumped several feet of rain over Florida, the water level in Lake Okeechobee could rise dramatically, Hagen said.

And if a hurricane with winds of 120 miles an hour (190 kilometers an hour) or more crossed the lake a few days later, "I could envision the water overtopping the dikes," he said.

"Would the dikes hold up if that happened? There's no way of knowing," Hagen said.

South Bay City Manager Tony Smith said people around the lake are relieved that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working on the dike, especially after Hurricane Wilma's visit.

According to Smith, the storm dumped so much debris into the lake that it clogged the intake where South Bay draws its drinking water.

"There was seven to ten feet [two to three meters] of debris on our shores," Smith said.

"It's a relief to know that that dike will be secure. It would blow your mind to know what was taken out of that intake."

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