Lake Okeechobee is currently at 13.7 feet, which is a slight increase over the course of the week, despite days of water releases into the estuaries surrounding the lake.
While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does not at this point believe the aging Hoover Dike is at risk of breach, there are three places where they expect significant amount of water to splash over and potentially stream over the top of those sites.
The three sites are places under construction intended to rehab parts of the dike in Palm Beach, Glades and Hendry Counties. Water that does overtop or overwash in these places could aggravate local flooding from the hurricane.
The Army Corps will continue to release water from the lake until roughly 4:00 p.m. Friday, before shutting down the gate structures in the face of Irma.
Colonel Jason Kirk, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville district, which oversees the dike, says the National Weather Service forecasts 10-15 inches to fall on the lake. For each foot of rain that falls north of the lake, that is an additional three feet of lake level. Kirk has not yet made a decision if the Corps will continue water releases after the hurricane.
“We’ve been in constant communication and will continue to to provide the absolutely most precise details we can on these estimates to the emergency managers and elected officials in Glades, Hendry and Palm Beach Counties,” said Kirk.
He says he is in communication with Governor Rick Scott at least daily.
He says people are in place to go out after the storm to inspect the dike and make sure the structure has not been compromised.
Thursday night, Governor Rick Scott issued voluntary evacuations for the cities surrounding the southern parts of Lake Okeechobee from Lake Port to Canal Point in Hendry, Palm Beach and Glades counties. That includes the communities of Lake Harbor, Pahokee, Moore Haven, Clewiston and Belle Glade.
While most of the dike is around 35 feet elevation, these three construction sites have temporary barriers to keep lake water out while the permanent structure is being constructed. The sites range from 23 to 2- foot elevations.
There have been concerns about the integrity of the Hoover Dike, built in the 1960s, which has been listed as one of the most vulnerable pieces of infrastructure manages by the Army Cops. The original structures failed during two hurricanes—in 1926 and 1928—killing more than 3,000 people. There are roughly 40,000 people who live in those areas today.
While the Army Corps has been active in shoring up the dike, the project will not be completed until the mid-2020s.
“It is our assessment today that there’s extremely low risk of that sort of condition as compared to what happened in 1928,” said Kirk.