Critical Lake Okeechobee Levee Safety Study to be Discussed Next Week

Five hurricanes of category two strength or greater threatened Florida between 1926 and 1928

Five hurricanes of category two strength or greater threatened Florida between 1926 and 1928

From 1926 to 1928, south Florida experienced no less than five strong hurricanes of Category 2 strength or higher. Two of those hurricanes, the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 and the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928, were especially large and destructive, claiming thousands of lives. In both seasons, strong winds around those storms pushed a storm surge out of Lake Okeechobee and into homes and farms surrounding the lake, drowning people and animals in horrible floods that took weeks to subside.

Just as Florida has been incredibly lucky since the Atlantic became active in 1995, south Florida was incredibly unlucky (as the attached map demonstrates) back in the late 20’s. Those two hurricanes, plus two more close passes from Category 2 hurricanes (and a forgotten major hurricane that came out of the Caribbean in October, 1928) amplified the need for levee protection around Lake Okeechobee. Work started in 1930 and continued until 1937. The result was the Herbert Hoover Dike, and it protects the communities around Lake Okeechobee in Florida.

On Tuesday, February 26th, The Army Corps of Engineers will be holding the first of two public meetings to discuss the initial phases of the Dam Safety Modification Study concerning the Herbert Hoover Dike (click here for the official notice from the Army Corps of Engineers).

For some back story, after the devastating impact of levee failures in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, the Army Corps of Engineers initiated a study to determine the possibility that the Herbert Hoover Dike could fail in the event of a hurricane or significant rain event. The study was disconcerting, at best, and determined some part of the structure would fail if the lake levels reached 18.5 feet or higher, something certainly possible in a 30 year rain event. Moreover, displaced water caused by a hurricane could also result in a massive failure of the system, and a devastating flood. Why? The system was built using engineering standards from the 1930’s.

In fact, high-water events in 1996 and 1999 put tremendous strain on the levees, and some failures were experienced.

So, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested to improve the 140 miles of levee around the lake, but that work is not scheduled to be complete until 2018. Plus, budgetary concerns mean that not all of the upgrades identified from the initial study will be fully implemented.

The economic impact of the 1926 and 1928 hurricanes cannot be overstated. Florida plunged into economic depression ahead of the rest of the nation. Land prices plummeted as people began to think of southern Florida as uninhabitable.

Obviously, the region has recovered since, but another stretch of storms like the 1926-1928 could have a similar impact. The levee system is better than it was in 2008, but it would not be able to stand up to a category 4 hurricane passing right over Lake Okeechobee, let alone two majors in three years time. The work being done will help, but not prevent such a catastrophic event.

Hopefully, the newest study will shed some light on what can be done to protect the region. It will set the plan for 2018 and beyond, and is critically important for the south Florida area.

If you live in the region and can attend, please do so (I am planning to attend the Clewiston meeting on Tuesday). Hopefully it doesn’t take another disaster to get the project fully completed in the shortest amount of time. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest hurricane hazards facing the country. Let’s hope the Army, and Congress, do what it takes to make this system safer and strong enough to withstand the next big hurricane that passes through. It is a predictable event…we will see a strong storm there.

About Michael Watkins

Mike Watkins is the founder of Hurricane Analytics, a private organization specializing in data visualization and predictive analytics, with a special focus on tropical meteorology. They analyze complex meteorological data and communicate that information in easy-to-understand terms, to help clients prepare and anticipate the disruptive impact of Atlantic hurricanes.