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With the threat of flooding increasing for anyone south of Lake Okeechobee, Florida Gov. Rick Scott late Thursday ordered the immediate evacuation of an estimated 70,000 people in seven communities south of the Herbert Hoover Dike.
“Floridians are facing a life-threatening storm in Hurricane Irma, and every family must prepare to evacuate,’’ Scott said in a statement. He also announced that schools across the state would close Friday through Monday in an effort to create more shelter space for the nearly 1 million people now under mandatory evacuation orders from the Keys to Hendry County.
The worst flooding fears of the communities surrounding the vulnerable Herbert Hoover appeared to increase after weather forecasts late Thursday showed Hurricane Irma potentially deluging the lake. Scott ordered the cities of South Bay, Lake Harbor, Pahokee, Moore Haven, Clewiston, Belle Glade and Canal Point to evacuate starting Friday, and voluntary evacuations starting Thursday night.
“Based on recent forecasts, the U.S. Army Corps has been reviewing how the federally operated Herbert Hoover Dike will be impacted,’’ the governor’s office said in a statement. “Gov. Scott spoke to Col. Jason Kirk with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers today and the corps believes there will be additional impacts from excessive wind pushing some water over the dike.
“While they have assured the governor that the structural integrity of the dike will not be compromised, Gov. Scott has ordered voluntary evacuations beginning immediately in the cities surrounding the southern half of Lake Okeechobee from Lake Port to Canal Point in Hendry, Palm Beach and Glades counties. Mandatory evacuations will be put in place for these communities beginning tomorrow morning.”
For two decades, reports from government engineers and outside experts have warned that the levee ringing Lake Okeechobee are a disaster waiting only for high water to happen. After the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a $220 million-plus overhaul to shore up its most vulnerable stretch in 2013, the dike remained on a national shortlist of unsafe Class 1 dams.
It’s a category defined as either “almost certain to fail under normal operations” or at extreme risk of failure with high fatalities and economic losses by the Army Corps’ dam experts. Accelerating repairs to the dike only become a priority this year, however, for the governor, state legislators and the Army Corps, when Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, announced a plan for a water-storing reservoir south of the lake to avoid toxic runoffs. Scott responded by asking lawmakers for $50 million to move up fortification of the dike.
The evacuation order issued Thursday could become a scene straight out of a script of emergency managers’ worst-case scenarios.
The dike’s failure was the example used during the annual hurricane preparation training conducted this year by the state and county emergency operations managers. The 2017 “hurricane ex” included the prospect of a major breach in the Herbert Hoover Dike, leaving everything south of Lake Okeechobee under water.
Emergency managers practiced the scenario hoping they would never have to put it into action. On Thursday, they drew a red line on a map showing what could happen if Hurricane Irma barrels west and dumps Category 4 winds and rain onto the lake and the farming communities along its banks.
“It’s almost like someone picked up the playbook,’’ said Margo Armistead, volunteer disaster liaison for the Salvation Army’s Florida chapter who has been stationed at the Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee and listened to the briefing. “It’s just a dire situation for that whole part of the state. There’s nowhere for the water to go except south.”
“These are the situations we think through and plan for it all year long,’’ said Jessica Geib, state liaison for the Salvation Army’s Florida division. “We’re never quite prepared for it but when something like this happens, we mobilize quickly.”
As recently as Wednesday, however, the Army Corps was assuring the public that the projections of 8 to 12 inches of rain would leave the dike at “low risk” of leaking or breaking. Federal officials moved forward with an organized release of water from the lake and surrounding canals to lower the levels before the storm. But the lake can rise far faster than the corps can lower it, and for every foot of rain that falls on the surrounding communities, the lake’s water level is expected to rise three feet.
Meanwhile, in an effort to increase shelter space for the growing number of evacuees, the governor also ordered the closure of all K-12 schools, colleges and universities Friday through Monday. Scott said in a statement that the school closure was necessary “to ensure we have every space available for sheltering and staging.”
“Our state’s public schools serve a vital role in our communities as shelters for displaced residents and staging areas for hurricane recovery efforts. Closing public schools, state colleges, state universities and state offices will provide local and state emergency officials the flexibility necessary to support shelter and emergency response efforts.”