CLEWISTON, Fla. — A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held Wednesday morning at the Herbert Hoover Dike, capping a yearslong rehabilitation project meant to keep the communities surrounding Lake Okeechobee safe from flooding.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spoke during the ceremony in Clewiston.
Originally built in the 1930s, the dike has been undergoing $1.8 billion in repairs since 2005.
Col. Jamie Booth said last year that 56 miles of the dike along Lake Okeechobee has been strengthened to prevent flooding in nearby communities.
"Safety is our No. 1 priority, and the goal of the project is to protect human life while reducing the risks of impact to the way of life, the economy and the environment to the communities around the lake," Booth said.
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Officials said the project was completed three years ahead of schedule.
Booth said the expedited completion was significantly helped by the state's contribution of $100 million in 2018.
Improvements include a cement cutoff wall that will help cut the flow of water through the dike.
"The dike consists of 143 miles of embankment, 60 structural penetrations, including five inlet spillways, five outlet spillways, nine pump stations, nine lock structures and 32 water control structures," Booth said.
Michael Connor, the assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, was among those in attendance at the ceremony, praising that the project was completed on time and under budget.
"This is an enormous achievement," Connor said. "Our ability to manage this particular facility in this lake and water levels is just fundamental to the South Florida ecosystem restoration program."
A 1928 hurricane that triggered Lake Okeechobee flooding up to 20 feet deep in some towns is estimated to have killed at least 2,500 people — a majority of them Black farm workers. That storm and its impact on the poor was memorialized in Zora Neale Hurston's classic 1937 book "Their Eyes Were Watching God."
By the late 1990s, however, engineers discovered the natural sand, rock and limestone dike that had been updated in the 1950s was weakening and could fail during a storm. That, in turn, led managers who control the lake's levels to move more water to Florida's east and west coasts to reduce the flood hazard.
Completion of the dike improvements will enable the lake's levels to be kept higher, reducing the need for discharges that can carry harmful nutrients to the coasts and improving the quality of water moving south into the Everglades — the vast wetlands also in the midst of a multibillion-dollar restoration effort, said Everglades Foundation CEO Erik Eichenberg.
"The future is bright for America's Everglades and the future is bright for Lake Okeechobee," Eichenberg said.
For people living close to the lake, the project means less worry about a dike failure during a storm, said Clewiston Mayor James Pittman.
"It's nothing short of a miracle. Now, the cities around the lake can dwell in confidence and safety," he said.