After 18 years, a $1.5 billion project to repair the extensive levee around Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, which protects thousands of people from potentially catastrophic flooding during hurricanes, was officially completed on Wednesday.
Overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Herbert Hoover-Dike project was completed three years ahead of schedule and at a savings of $300 million over the original cost estimate, officials said at a dedication ceremony on the shores of the lake in Clewiston.
“Herbert Hoover Dike has never been in better shape than he is right now,” said Col. James Booth, commander of the Corps of Engineers’ Jacksonville District. “This is great news for the lake communities.”
The restoration project, which began in 2005, included work across the 143-mile span of the dike that surrounds the vast lake. The levee was originally created after hurricanes caused lake floods in the 1920s that killed thousands of people in sugar-growing areas such as Clewiston, South Bay, Pahokee and Belle Glade. It was eventually enlarged to encircle the entire 730 square miles of the lake.
A 1928 hurricane that caused Lake Okeechobee to flood up to 20 feet in some towns is estimated to have killed at least 2,500 people — most of them black farm workers. This storm and its impact on the poor was chronicled in Zora Neale Hurston’s classic 1937 book, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
However, in the late 1990s engineers discovered that the natural sand, rock and limestone levee, which had been updated in the 1950s, was weakening and could fail during a storm. That, in turn, prompted managers who control the lake’s water levels to divert more water to Florida’s east and west coasts to reduce the risk of flooding.
Completion of the levee improvements will allow the lake’s levels to be kept higher, reduce the need for discharges that can carry harmful nutrients to the shores, and improve the quality of the water flowing south into the Everglades — the vast ones Wetlands, which are 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 bright for Lake Okeechobee,” said Eichenberg.
Everything about the dyke project is massive. Over 7.8 million man-hours from 42 contractors went into the work. About 90,000 cubic yards (69,000 cu yd) of concrete was poured. Twenty-eight water control structures were replaced. There are now nine pumping stations and nine navigation locks.
For people living near the lake, the project means fewer worries about a levee breach during a storm, said Clewiston Mayor James Pittman.
“It’s nothing short of a miracle. Now the towns around the lake can dwell in confidence and security,” he said.