A study by federal engineers in 2006 called the Herbert Hoover dike a disaster waiting to happen. Since then, hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on repair work. The situation has gotten better but concerns remain.
“We see problems with the lake when it get’s above 18 feet,” said Bill Johnson, director at the Palm Beach Emergency Operations Center. “We would be very concerned when we would see a hurricane come past Lake Okeechobee.”
Since 2001, close to $870 million has been spent in repair works but the situation is far from ideal. Water levels at the lake can still rise faster than engineers can lower it.
Officials with the Palm Beach County Emergency Operations Center aren’t taken any chances.
“We have a full dike breach plan in place that’s been reviewed on a regular basis,” Johnson said.
Another $800 million is slated to be spent until 2025 to complete repairs on the 80-year-old dike.
According to insurance giant Lloyd’s of London, 40,000 residents who live near the lake are at risk should the dike fail.
For another 5 million people south of the lake, a breach could have far reaching effects. The risk analysis report further states that recovery could take years and economic losses could likely be in the tens of billions of dollars.
“It’s very scary,” said Hillary Hyslope, executive director of the Lewiston Chamber of Commerce. “This is our home. I see the levy system from my house. I live here with my husband and our four kids, our things are here, our life is here.”
Clewiston is an area where the repairs of the dike are still in full swing. Clewiston residents have been watching images of California’s massive Oroville dam, threatening to flood the surrounding areas. Around 188,000 people have been evacuated in the northern California region surrounding the dam.
“With the news and everything you’re reading, and social media it’s become a big concern because the realities are constantly in your face of what could happen,” said Clewiston resident Julia Du Plooy.
Du Plooy created the Lake Okeechobee Business Alliance, a non-profit organization that brings people in the communities surrounding the lake closer together and work on how to best address the aging dike.
“The discussion has been going on since I was child on how to fix the levy and here I am, an adult and now I have a child and we’re still talking about it,” Du Plooy said.
The American Corps of Engineers and the Palm Beach County EOC are keeping a close eye on the lake levels.
“I think we’re pretty well prepared,” Johnson said about the evacuation plans that are in place.
Johnson said in the case of a breach, emergency notifications would be send out. School buses would be brought in to evacuate people and bring them to the designated shelter areas.
Johnson recommends signing up to the county’s emergency notification system.
While repair works are underway, Clewiston residents are hoping disaster doesn’t strike before the work is completed.
“It’s very important to us that we use some of this funding that’s available to help finish these projects and get the levy system finished for the safety of everybody south of the lake,” Hyslope said.