PAHOKEE, Fla. — Sandra Suggs dropped to the floor when Hurricane Wilma burst the back windows of her house. The spraying glass terrified her then, but what she saw minutes before the storm unleashed its fiercest winds disturbs her today.
While hurricane winds charged through the rural city of Pahokee, Suggs defied her husband’s wishes and climbed the stairs to the second floor, which overlooks the Herbert Hoover Dike and Lake Okeechobee.
She peeked out the window and saw water spraying over the only barrier between her home and a roiling water body more than twice the size of New York City.
As soon as weather forecasters say a hurricane is headed toward Pahokee this year, Suggs said, she’s leaving town.
“I will never stay again,” Suggs said.
Sandra and Ray Suggs live a quarter-mile from where crashing waves gouged a 100-foot-wide, 40-foot-deep groove in the dike during Hurricane Wilma last year.
A relatively fast-moving storm by the time it reached Florida, Wilma passed by in about four hours and traveled through the Everglades as a strong Category 2. Had it lingered another hour, the Suggses doubt the dike would have held up.
A report that called national attention to the condition of the dike in late April also questioned how long the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can keep up with constant repairs to the ailing levee. Uncertain about the structure’s strength, emergency management agencies in Palm Beach, Hendry and Glades counties are rewriting their evacuation plans and preparing for the worst this hurricane season.
But Col. Robert Carpenter, commander of the Corps’ Jacksonville district, calls the report’s language sensational. He has confidence in his agency’s ability to keep the dike from breaching during a storm.
“Right now, what we would have to have is a storm like we’ve never had before. It would have to be a storm that would dump incredible amounts of water,” Carpenter said. “One storm so large we would know that the Herbert Hoover Dike failed.”
A damming report
Following last year’s record-breaking hurricane season, with Katrina as an example of what can happen when human ingenuity fails, Florida leaders started looking at Lake Okeechobee in a different light.
The Corps stayed its course, making emergency repairs and starting on a 20-year reinforcement project that will cost more than $300 million.
Meanwhile, the South Florida Water Management District hired BCI Engineers & Scientists Inc. to evaluate the safety of the earthen levee that stretches 143 miles around the 730-square-mile lake.
The BCI report, which concluded the dike “poses a grave and imminent danger to the people and the environment of South Florida,” calls for shoring up the dike to meet dam safety standards.
The BCI engineers gave the dike a one-in-six chance of failing each year without the Corps’ constant monitoring and emergency repair work.
Made of sand, limestone and clay dredged mostly from the lake, the dike stands an average of 34 feet tall and 100 feet wide at the base. Over decades, water has dug small tunnels through the levee. When the lake rises, more water seeps through the tunnels and more erosion occurs. Add wind and the problem gets worse.
Last year, crashing waves from Wilma eroded deep pockets along the inside of the dike from Port Myakka to South Bay. The largest gap formed near the Pahokee airport, where past erosion problems had prompted the Corps to apply asphalt to the dike. After waves licked a thick groove into the underlying sand and rock, part of the asphalt collapsed and created a cliff.
Carpenter said the erosion was nothing extraordinary.
“It was larger than some of the others, sure,” Carpenter said. “The direction of the winds, we believe, is what really caused that.”
The Pahokee side of the dike is more vulnerable because there are no barrier islands to break up crashing waves. Pahokee is also one of a few towns where hundreds of people live with the dike in their backyard.
Carpenter said it’s customary for the Corps to patch the dike after every hurricane. That’s why, five days after the storm, he told Gov. Jeb Bush Wilma had no impact on the structure.
On Oct. 29, Bush sent an e-mail to Colleen Castille, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, inquiring about the condition of the dike.
“Tell me we have no problems,” he wrote.
Castille passed the message to Carpenter.
“Please tell the governor that Wilma had no impact on the dike,” Carpenter replied the same day.
During a telephone interview on Friday, Carpenter said the storm had an effect on the dike, but not an impact. In other words, he said, it didn’t create a threat that would worry state officials.
“At that point in time, five days after a hurricane, it had no effect. It was business as usual for the Corps,” Carpenter said. “What occurred there was actually what we would expect to occur given the conditions that it was put under.”
Patching holes in the dike might be business as usual for the Corps, but emergency management officials aren’t taking chances.
“We’re going to be conservative and make sure we have a plan in place,” said Mike Stone, spokesman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
From the top of the dike in Pahokee, the lake’s opposite shoreline lies 30 miles away and slinks out of view. When the lake stands at 16 feet above sea level, 100 mph winds blowing from the north toward South Bay could create 11-foot waves, according to the April report.
Lake Okeechobee covers a land mass larger than Charlotte County. Its water surface sits 12 to 14 feet above sea level during the dry season and sometimes rises above 16 feet during the rainy season. Shortly after Wilma, the lake rose to 17 feet.
Communities around the lake range in elevation from about 10 to 20 feet, with the lowest-lying areas to the southeast, where the lake formerly spilled out into the Everglades.
Pahokee, which means grassy waters in Seminole, gets its name from its soggy past.
Belle Glade’s motto, “Her soil is her fortune,” speaks to the rich muck that washed from the lake centuries ago and gave rise to its productive farmland.
The state has lots of data on coastal storm surge, but little on Lake Okeechobee. Stone said the state will study wind effects on the lake, but evacuation plans will unfold without that information this year.
In early June, state emergency officials and their counterparts in Palm Beach, Hendry and Glades counties will meet for two days to hammer out the logistics involved in evacuating 40,000 people who live near the lake.
“It’s not the first time we’ve dealt with regional evacuation with areas that have special geographic concerns. We do this with the Florida Keys,” Stone said.
Charles Tear, director of emergency management for Palm Beach County, said the county easily could send enough buses to evacuate 40,000 people from the Lake Okeechobee region today. But if a hurricane were headed toward Palm Beach and predicted to cross Belle Glade, as a catastrophic storm did in 1928, Tear said he’s not sure whether demand for public transit would outweigh supply.
“Where it causes problems is where we have other areas evacuating,” Tear said. “Then there’s a demand for these resources.”
Rather than relying solely on the county, Tear said neighbors should plan now to help each other out in an evacuation.
“I put the responsibility, first off, back on the people,” Tear said. “They have to personally prepare for where they are going and what they are going to do.”
Belle Glade — Sept. 16, 1928
“Water surged seven feet deep in the streets of Belle Glade in the black darkness of that September night,” wrote self-proclaimed cracker historian Lawrence E. Will in his 1968 book, “Swamp to Sugar Bowl, Pioneer Days in Belle Glade.”
Will was writing about a hurricane that shoved Lake Okeechobee miles into Belle Glade, Chosen and South Bay, killing an estimated 2,000 people overnight.
“For years, farmers clearing new land discovered skeletons far out in the sawgrass,” Will wrote.
If the 1926 hurricane that drowned more than 400 people in Moore Haven wasn’t tragic enough to convince the federal government to rein in Lake Okeechobee, the 1928 storm was.
Under orders from Congress, the Army Corps in 1930 began to build the Herbert Hoover Dike. The structure extended from north of Moore Haven on the west to Pahokee on the east.
A less-deadly storm that deluged South Florida and nearly over-topped the dike in 1947 led to the extension of the dike all the way around the lake in the 1950s.
Since then, the dike has survived several storms, including Donna in the 1960s. In recent years, it held up to Ivan, Frances, Jeanne and Wilma. That history gives some people comfort.
Faith in a trusty neighbor
“The dike has been my back-door neighbor for 50 years,” said Carolyn Jernigan, who lives in a house that sits where Lake Okeechobee sat before the second leg of the dike was constructed.
While Jernigan grew up less than a mile away from where she lives now, her husband, Charles, moved from Pensacola to Pakohee in the early 1950s to help build the dike.
Jernigan said she doesn’t worry about flooding, but she is concerned that alarm about the dike will cause everyone to evacuate at once and create a gigantic traffic jam.
City leaders around Lake Okeechobee trust the Corps to keep the dike stable, but they take the warnings in the BCI report seriously.
“Katrina, and Wilma for us, certainly have made it such that we recognize that sometimes the extremes are possible,” said Houston L. Tate, city manager of Belle Glade.
Clewiston Mayor Mali Chamness said she is encouraging the Corps to keep Lake Okeechobee lower, for public safety and the environment. Her city also is preparing to respond to any type of disaster during hurricane season, she said.
Carpenter said although the report revealed nothing new to the Corps, he understands city and county officials need to plan for the unexpected.
“Any time you put a human populace in an area that is protected by a structure built by humans, you ought to have a plan in case something goes wrong,” Carpenter said. fred sent
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Esteban Herrera, 19
Esteban Herrera doesn’t think much of his Canal Point neighborhood. He calls it a “junk place” littered with the straggling remains of mobile homes flattened by Hurricane Wilma. The backdrop to his home — a stark-white Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer — is a train track lined with rusty freight cars, and behind that a steep man-made hill that rises above Lake Okeechobee — the Herbert Hoover Dike.
“It’s not a good thing living by the dike,” Herrera said. “It’s not a safe place.”
When weather forecasters predicted last year that Hurricane Wilma would send violent winds across the lake, the two dozen or so mobile homes emptied. People without cars hopped into their neighbors’ vehicles or called friends and family to cart them to safety.
After the hurricane passed, a lot of the people returned to nothing, but the neighbors worked together to clean up the debris.
“Most of the people, the Hispanic people, that’s what we’re doing, helping each other out,” Herrera said. “Everyone around here is mostly family.”
Herrera, who goes to night school and works at Thriftway in Pahokee, said he doesn’t have much faith in local government.
“They don’t put effort into our community,” Herrera said. “You got to depend on your own self because nobody’s always there for you.”
Jay and Sandra Suggs
Before Hurricane Wilma, Jay and Sandra Suggs never thought much about the dike that stands between their 1940s home and Lake Okeechobee.
But after last year’s storm licked a 100-foot gouge in the dike about a quarter-mile away from where they live, they both feel a little different.
Ray Suggs said he questions how much of a storm that dike can withstand, and he doubts it would have held up to Wilma if she had lingered an hour longer.
Still, he said, he doesn’t plan to evacuate the next time a storm is predicted. If the dike breaches, he said, he’ll climb onto the roof and defend his home from looters.
Sandra Suggs said she’ll leave town a couple days ahead of time.
“I just have to take it in stride and that God’s going to watch over us, but that doesn’t mean I have to stay,” Suggs said.
The threat of bad weather isn’t enough to convince her to leave the home she has lived in for 30 years.
“It’s my home. You can’t just run away. You go somewhere else, Mother Nature will follow you and something else will happen,” Suggs said.
Rhonda Brown, RB’s Thrift
When Rhonda Brown was growing up with her brother and two sisters, the Herbert Hoover Dike was the place the go with her family for a Sunday outing.
Now it worries her.
On Main Street in Pahokee, Brown just opened her own business — a thrift shop so crammed with clothes anyone would be hard-pressed to leave without something nice to wear.
The small city of Pahokee, with a population hovering around 6,000, rests at the foot of the dike. The local Chamber of Commerce calls it Palm Beach County’s other coast because it is the only city in the county that sits just feet from the dike.
With all the news about the questionable integrity of the dike, Brown said she’s trying to think positive.
“You know when you’re first starting out and everything’s gettin’ kind of good, you hate to hear that kind of stuff,” Brown said.
She said the building her business is located in is up for sale and people constantly drop by to take a look at it. That’s a sign, she said, that some people aren’t worried about Lake Okeechobee flooding the small city.
Then again, she said, she doesn’t want to be too optimistic. When a storm is on track to Pahokee or Belle Glade, where Brown lives, she said she plans to evacuate.
“Some say God’ll protect you. Some say God gave you five senses, you better use them,” Brown said.