All this rain and a busy hurricane season have left South Florida the wettest it’s been in 86 years, according to the South Florida Water Management District.
And how wet is that? More than three weeks after Hurricane Irma brought heavy rains and pushed a massive storm surge across South Florida triggering widespread flooding, Lake Okeechobee continues to fill so fast that its dike is at increasing risk of springing leaks, or worse — despite millions in repairs to the aging structure over the past decade.
And farther to the south in Miami-Dade, the popular Shark Valley destination in Everglades National Park remains under water. Two feet covered the parking lot near the visitor center Thursday off Tamiami Trail and park offices are in danger of flooding. Further along the Trail, water was so high in the Big Cypress National Preserve that it submerged westbound lanes for a time just past the Collier County line. And with a seasonal high tide and inshore winds this week, water managers say they’re having trouble moving water in drainage canals offshore to make room for more.
“It’s the wettest I can remember,” said 75-year-old Jesse Kennon, owner of Coopertown, one of four airboat concessions along the Tamiami.
If it seems like water is coming in from all sides, it is. A tropical system hovering over the Florida Straits is expected to continue dumping heavy rain for the next couple of days on already saturated ground. And the continuing king tides won’t help, pushing sea water into low-lying coastal areas and slowing the flow of flood waters from inland. Thursday evening, tides near Port Miami were expect to reach 3.14 feet.
Even before Irma, this year’s wet season had a record-breaking start, said Paul Linton, the district’s water management chief officer. It only got worse when South Florida got hit by a tropical wave in late August, followed by Tropical Storm Emily north of the lake. The district, which extends from the Kissimmee River south of Orlando to Florida City had a total of 44.19 inches of rain as of Wednesday — the most in nearly nine decades.
“Usually, inside the wet season we have a below average month to recover,” he said. “We haven’t had that yet.”
All the rain has left water high in the region’s three conservation areas that normally help ease flooding. Wetlands west of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, the largest conservation area at a half million acres and larger than Lake Okeechobee, has been full for most of the season, with managers struggling as water rushes in faster than it can be moved out, Linton said.
Last week, water being pumped to the west flooded the Tamiami Trail near the Big Cypress National Preserve, which is also wrestling with high water left behind by Irma and remains closed. For two days, water flooded westbound lanes while workers shut down pumps. This week, the shoulder remained submerged.
In Everglades National Park, water flowed down the road leading to Shark Valley like a river, with fish swimming across the submerged swale.
In coastal Miami, heavy rains merged with Thursday’s king tide to add to the misery. Tidal water seeped up through storm drains as traffic avoided inundated southbound lanes on Collins Avenue and 24th Street. Water also engulfed some neighborhood streets and pooled along the 79th Street Causeway in Miami.
Inland roads needed no wake zones, with speeding cars and trucks pushing out tire high waves. Along 8th Street, water washed over sidewalks. In Doral, persistent rain overwhelmed storm drains on major thoroughfares, including 36th Street and 97th Avenue.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is keeping close watch on rising water levels in Lake Okeechobee and has increased inspections of the dike to twice weekly, said spokesman John Campbell. Lake levels reached 16.67 feet on Thursday, with water entering the lake nearly three times faster than it was being emptied.
“What we’ve been doing is releasing as much as we can with the caveat that we don’t want to cause any downstream impacts,” he said. Since mid-September, water has been flushed down both the St. Lucie and the Caloosahatchee rivers, an option the Corps tries to avoid because of environmental harm. Dirty lake water has repeatedly triggered algae blooms in the St. Lucie estuary and caused oyster and seagrass die-offs in the Caloosahatchee.
Campbell said releases have been staggered and timed to limit damage, but amounts are still high, with the St. Lucie releases at times reaching 1.9 billion gallons a day and flows to the Caloosahatchee averaging 4.5 billion gallons a day. The coming king tide will temporarily end the releases to avoid flooding, he said.
Going into September, lake levels had been relatively low, at about 13 feet, he said. The Corps normally like to end the wet season with the lake close to 15.5 feet deep to provide enough water for the dry season. But Irma, which crossed the state north of the lake, caused it to rise faster than water could be flushed out.
“At 13 feet and change, you wonder are we going to have enough rain for the dry season,” he said. “And once again one storm has just changed the tone of that conversation.”
At Coopertown, all the rain was slightly good for business. With much of Everglades National Park closed — boats have been allowed into Florida Bay although facilities at Flamingo remain closed — Kennon’s airboats are one of the few ways to sightsee. Parts of Biscayne National Park have reopened but the Big Cypress National Preserve remains closed as park service workers from across the country work on all three to clear debris and make repairs.
“People are starting to realize we’re the only way to see the park,” Kennon said. Although the water has not come without a cost, Kennon said as he strolled behind the old Dade pine cabin that houses the business.
“This is not a pond holding water,” he said, pointing to a pool adjacent to his pet alligator pen. “This is the actual water level.”
Staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this report.
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