CLEWISTON, Fla. - Governor Rick Scott toured Lake Okeechobee on Monday morning, checking on the status of the Herbert Hoover Dike near Clewiston.
Thanks to heavy rains, the impact from Hurricane Irma and the king tide this past weekend, the lake topped 17 feet -- which is far above levels engineers are comfortable with when it comes to managing the lake.
While the lake levels are critical, repairs continue at the dike as the governor still sticks to his completion goal of 2022.
“A lot of people died here before the dike was built. It’s really important that we take care of this," Gov. Scott told WPTV and other media during a press conference on Monday.
Scott was referencing the flooding that killed thousands of people during the hurricane of 1928, including Janet Taylor's family.
“Actually had an uncle that was killed in the 1928 hurricane. So that’s why it’s so detrimental for me to get this fixed," said Taylor, who leads the Glades Lives Matter movement.
Still living around the lake, Taylor and her neighbors say Hurricane Irma this year was a big wake up call.
“Thank God it didn’t do what we expected it to do because we evacuated all the cities around the lake and had we not — we couldn’t take the chance on the lake," she said.
Tammy Jackson-Moore, who leads the Guardians of the Glades group, said she's pleased to see the governor once again visiting Lake Okeechobee and addressing the needs of the residents. Gov. Scott hosted a round table in August in Belle Glade.
“I evacuated during the mandatory evacuation so when I returned home, my ceiling was in my living room," said Jackson-Moore. "So it’s very important that we not only be prepared for these disasters that come our way, but we need to do what we can to make certain that Herbert Hoover dike is repaired because that’s a disaster that doesn’t have to happen."
As seen from Chopper 5 during a fly-by this morning, Lake Okeechobee is now sitting at just over 17 feet and is expected to crest at 17.5. That is the highest the lake has been in 12 years, since Hurricane Wilma in 2005. The corps says the level is unprecedented by not a record.
Col. Jason Kirk, a commander in the Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville district, says crews haven't found any distresses on the dike so far.
“I have teams that are doing daily inspections on the southern end of the dike and they’re also inspecting the lesser risk northern end of the dike," he said. “We do not assess that through the next couple of weeks with the rain fall that we currently predict, that we will see any major signs of distress.”
Gov. Scott wouldn’t cite specifics but did say there would be an evacuation plan in place if any problems arise.
“We’re going to be in constant contact. If the corps finds a problem, then we’ll make a decision at the point," he said.
The Corps has poured in $800 million into the dike repair project so far, about half of what it will cost to fix. The total price tag is approximately $1.6 billion. Gov. Scott was able to convince the state legislature to contribute $50 million to the project from this year's budget.
The governor is still counting on President Donald Trump to help.
“The corps only has the money that is allocated by congress and the president,” said Gov. Scott. “The corps can’t fix anything if they don’t have the money. So the president is committed to be our partner and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure congress if a partner."
On Friday, the Corps says inspectors found no significant issues with the dike's integrity. The only place where seepage was found was at a site in the southern half of the dike. That seepage has been noted since 2009 and during times that the lake reaches levels above 15.5 feet.
Ideally the lake needs to be between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet. Levels have risen rapidly because of rain, runoff and the lack of discharges.
The Corps discontinued discharges into the St. Lucie Estuary because of rising tides, but said it will likely resume discharges once the issue subsides. So far, the Corps said no algae blooms have been detected.