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Lake Okeechobee communities resist Irma evacuation orders

September 08, 2017 - 1:03 PM

BELLE GLADE, Fla. - Many people in the small, impoverished communities south of Lake Okeechobee said they wouldn't evacuate Friday, saying they either had no transportation and nowhere to go, or they chose to accept whatever fate Hurricane Irma would inflict upon them.

The lake's 80-year-old dike isn't in danger of a breach, but Irma's winds may drive lake-waters over a few of its weak points, aggravating flooding caused by rainfall or storm surge, Army Corps of Engineers officials said.

Florida officials ordered mandatory evacuations in seven small cities in the "Muck City" area, known for producing two dozen professional football players, growing sugarcane and inspiring a classic novel of the Harlem Renaissance.

In Belle Glade, homes and stores were boarded up, but their owners had decided to stay.

Jose Alvarado and Orlando Rodriguez cut plywood to cover a gas station's windows.

"Nobody got nowhere to go, so we'd rather be home safe," said Alvarado.

Rodriguez said he expected Belle Glade to suffer some storm damage. "But some people don't want to leave their home and everything they have. They've lived here all their lives," he added.

Shameem Khan, the station's owner, said he survived the 1970 Bhola cyclone that killed up to 500,000 people in Bangladesh.

"I grew up with these things," said Khan, who immigrated to the U.S. 35 years ago. "A lot of people there, they don't take the government forecast seriously and there are a lot of places that are hard to reach."

Irma was expected to drop up to 15 inches of rain over the lake, and Category 4 winds of at least 130 mph (209 kph) could blow across its waters for up to seven hours, said Col. Jason Kirk, the Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville district commander.

The winds could send water splashing or streaming over three culvert construction sites, Kirk said.

The construction is part of an ongoing, $1.8 billion project to reinforce the 143-mile (230-kilometre) long, 35-foot (10 metre) high Herbert Hoover Dike, considered one of the country's most at-risk for imminent failure.

Lake levels Friday were 13.7 feet (4.18 metres) deep, below levels that cause water to seep through the earthen dike and raise the breach risk.

"If we were sitting today, right now, above, say, 16 feet (5 metres) and then we had this Category 4, that would give us greater concern," Kirk said.

Flooding from the 1926 Miami hurricane, a Category 4 storm, killed about 300 people in Lake Okeechobee communities. Two years later, Belle Glade was wiped out by a hurricane that made landfall with 145 mph winds and crossed over the lake.

The dike failed, unleashing a 20-foot (6-meter) wall of water that drowned an estimated 2,500 people in communities of poor, black farmworkers. The disaster was a key part of Zora Neale Hurston's classic 1937 novel, "Their Eyes Were Watching God."

In the book, she also celebrated the richness of the lake and surrounding land: "Big Lake Okeechobee, big beans, big cane, big weeds, big everything."

The Mar-a-Lago mansion, now owned by President Donald Trump, sits 45 miles (72 kilometres) east of the lake. The 1928 hurricane damaged just one of its arched, Roman-style windows.

About half the country's sugarcane is grown in the "Muck City" area. The next U.S. Sugar harvest is scheduled to begin Oct. 1.

"Farmers are always at the mercy of Mother Nature," U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez said.

Lake Okeechobee is Florida's largest and the second-largest body of freshwater in the contiguous United States. A dike failure could damage the Everglades, flood farmland and contaminate the drinking water supply for millions of people.

Environmental problems have plagued the lake recently. When lake levels rise too high, the corps releases water to Florida's east and west coasts, where local officials say pollution from the discharges are ruining estuaries and hurting tourism.

In May, Gov. Rick Scott approved a plan to build reservoirs south of the lake to treat polluted water before it flows downstream.

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Kay reported from Miami.

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News from © The Associated Press, 2017
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