Leaky dike is no threat - yet

"Since what happened last year in New Orleans, I think about it all the time. They say there's nothing to worry about, but you never know."Janice Jenkins, who lives near the dike.

Published August 30, 2006

PAHOKEE - As a backhoe and bulldozer pushed around a pile of rocks on the dike that towers above her back yard, Lynda Moss watched television Tuesday unconcerned about the possibility that the barrier between her home and massive Lake Okeechobee could break.

Despite a government report that says the aging, leaky Herbert Hoover Dike needs to be repaired to protect towns around it, the 52-year-old Moss was more worried about winds than Okeechobee floodwaters as Tropical Storm Ernesto approached - largely because Hurricane Frances' gusts destroyed her home two years ago.

"Maybe my mentality is not where it should be," she said. "Do I think the government should do something? Yes. But am I afraid of it at this point? No."

As Ernesto approached this small farming community on the southeast side of the Okeechobee, the second-largest natural freshwater lake contained within the United States, it did serve as a reminder that a massive hurricane combined with a high water level could cause serious flooding problems should the dike fail.

It's a question that's been on the minds of many since New Orleans was flooded when levees there broke after Hurricane Katrina a year ago.

"Since what happened last year in New Orleans, I think about it all the time," said Janice Jenkins, 40, who lives with her husband and five children in neighborhood alongside the dike. "They say there's nothing to worry about, but you never know."

Officials do think the dike will be safe during Ernesto. The lake level is 12 feet above sea level and officials believe there wouldn't be a threat of water topping the dike unless the level was at least 18 feet. Pahokee sits 13 feet above sea level.

"Right now the water is not even touching the dike, we're in excellent shape," said Barry Vorse, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers. "If we could somehow magically remove the Herbert Hoover Dike, water would run into the lake, not out of it."

The corps also has 35,000 tons of material and heavy equipment around the 730-square-mile lake in case there is an unexpected break in the 140-mile-long dike.

Ann O'Connell Rust, who owns the Mister JellyRoll's coffee shop a little more than a block from the dike, said the earthen mound has long been in need of more maintenance.

"The people who live here have seen the deterioration of the dike because they have not maintained it," said O'Connell Rust, 77, who was raised in the area and returned here four years ago. "We've had an awful lot of promises - a lot of Band-Aids on broken legs."

The dike was built in the 1930s after a powerful hurricane and flood killed an estimated 2,500 people. It has been the focus of scrutiny since May, when a report found the structure is highly vulnerable to breaches caused by hurricanes and heavy rains.

The corps is currently making massive repairs to strengthen it.

"It's pretty bad that New Orleans had to be destroyed for them to pay attention to our dike," O'Connell Rust said. "I think it's sick."