Fred Grimm

Tropical storm system would pose ‘grave danger’ to lakeside communities

Zachary Delia, a college archeology intern working at the historical museum in Belle Glade, at the bronze memorial to the victims of the 1928 flood.
Zachary Delia, a college archeology intern working at the historical museum in Belle Glade, at the bronze memorial to the victims of the 1928 flood. Miami Herald

Invest 99L was only a disorganized tropical wave churning toward the Bahamas. But the faraway system was laden with dire possibilities for communities along Lake Okeechobee’s vulnerable southern shore.

Jeff Masters, co-founder of the Weather Underground forecasting service, warned of a “grave danger” that torrential rains could bring to the region. “Even if 99L never develops into a tropical cyclone, it has the potential to dump a large amount of rain on a place that doesn’t need it — the catchment basin of Lake Okeechobee in Central Florida.”

A seven-inch rain across the basin could raise the lake’s water levels by as much as three feet, Masters wrote in his well-regarded weather blog on Wednesday.

If you think that’s unlikely, consider that a no-name storm surprised Louisiana with an average of 11 inches, up to 24 inches of rain earlier this month, causing a so-called “thousand year flood.” In the age of global warming and superheated summers, catastrophic rainfalls may be the new normal.

The lake level was already at 14.68 feet as the storm approached Florida on Friday. “At a lake water elevation of 15.5’, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dumps water out of the lake as fast as it can in order to keep high stresses on the dike from causing a failure,” Masters wrote.

It could be this storm. It could be any major rainstorm. And Florida once again will be forced to grapple with the brutal conundrum posed by Lake Okeechobee.

When rising water levels forced the Corps to open the spillways in February, the polluted lake water gushing down the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers set off a massive toxic algae bloom. The estuaries are only just now recovering. Another massive release would bring a reprise of the stinking, fish-killing, tourism-crippling green algae. It would be horrible. But there’s no safe alternative.

In 2006, engineers hired by the state warned of an “imminent probability” that the 143-mile earthen dike around the lake would fail. Zachary Delia, an intern working this summer at the Lawrence E. Will Museum of the Glades in Belle Glade, knows the catastrophic consequences of such a failure. “I’m surrounded by reminders,” said the 21-year-old archaeology student.

Just outside the museum, 17,000 pounds of bronze have been cast into one of America’s most harrowing public monuments, a memorial of the 1928 disaster when an earlier version of the dam failed and 1.6 trillion gallons of water swept over the little farm communities south of the lake. Some 2,500 perished.

The bronze work by Hungarian sculptor Ferenc Varga depicts a father and mother, faces etched in terror. A little boy clings to their legs. The mother clutches a baby. Waves curl up around their feet. The statue of the doomed family stands on a block of stone with a carved frieze of houses, trees and tangled bodies floating in flood waters. Inside, the museum is adding a room dedicated to the 1928 flood. Surrounded by all that, Delia said, he could hardly not worry “about the stability of that dike.”

The Corps has spent some $500 million since 2007 shoring up the dike. But a stretch of the gravel, sand and rock dam along the southern shore of the lake remains vulnerable. Unless a Congress that has shown little sympathy for Florida’s travails (including its Zika crisis) comes up with emergency funds to fix the dike, repairs won’t be completed for another decade. Until then, the lakeside towns of Clewiston, Harlem, Lake Harbor, South Bay and Belle Glade need to regard tropical storms with wary appreciation of what happened in 1928. Except the deluge loosed by a modern-day breach would flood 40,000 residents.

“I worry that people around here might not be aware of what happened when that dike broke in 1928,” Delia said. “I wonder how many people drive by that statue every day without knowing what it means.”

But he has noticed that the Varga sculpture has become a frequent rendezvous spot for kids playing “Pokémon Go.” “Maybe some of them will stop and read the plaque.”