Frustrated with the slow pace of repairs to Lake Okeechobee’s troubled dike, Palm Beach County Commissioner Shelly Vana issued a personal warning to the federal agency charged with fixing the leaky, 70-year-old structure.
“If our people ever drown, I will never stop blaming you,” Vana told a representative of the Army Corps of Engineers at a South Florida water advisory board meeting Thursday.
Vana and her fellow commissioners for years have called on the Army Corps to speed up the decades-long fix planned for the lake’s Herbert Hoover Dike, considered one of the country’s most at risk of a breach.
This rainier-than-usual summer has drawn more attention to safety concerns about the 30-foot-tall earthen mound that is relied on to protect lakeside communities and South Florida farmland from flooding.
Rising lake levels increase the strain on the dike, raising the risk of erosion that can lead to a breach.
As a result, the Army Corps since May has dumped hundreds of billions of gallons of lake water out to sea. While that lake water dumping helps protect the dike, the deluge of lake discharges pollutes coastal waterways, killing fishing grounds and making some areas unsafe for swimming.
Army Corps representatives acknowledge that the condition of the dike remains a concern, but contend that they are making upgrades to improve public safety.
The 143-mile-long Herbert Hoover Dike is in the midst of a decades-long rehab, expected to cost $750 million for its initial phases.
The Army Corps in October completed the five-year installation of a 21-mile stretch of a reinforcing wall built through the middle of the most vulnerable section of the dike, between Port Mayaca and Belle Glade.
The corps is also replacing the dike's 32 culverts, which could take until 2018. A report to be completed next year is intended to reveal what future fixes are needed.
But that work is not being done fast enough according to Vana and other Florida officials.
“Something is seriously wrong” if it takes this long to make the progress that has been accomplished so far, according to Vana.
Vana has also questions county emergency evacuation plans that rely on school buses to get people out of vulnerable Glades communities if the lake’s dike fails. On Thursday she called for crafting an emergency response plan that doesn’t rely on school bus drivers.