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Publication date: Jun. 14, 2006


CORPS REFUSES TO WARN FLORIDA RESIDENTS, BUSINESSES IN HARM'S WAYIn kind of Hurricane Katrina replay, the Army Corps of Engineers this month refused to release maps showing where deaths or property damage might result from failure of Lake Okeechobee's Herbert Hoover Dike. The Corps has been under fire for failing to repair the crumbling structure, whose failure could kill thousands of people.

As hurricane season began, it became clear that imminent danger loomed over residents and property both from the neglected dike and from the neglect of local and state authorities to draw up plans for evacuating the vulnerable areas if the dike were breached. Those officials scrambled to draw up such plans in June, even as the Corps was rushing to strengthen the dike.

A failure of a levee containing Lake Okeechobee during a 1928 hurricane surge killed an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 people. Most were buried in a mass grave, and because most were African American migrant farm workers, the disaster did not make a large or lasting impression on the U.S. historical consciousness, even though it was larger than the Johnstown Flood. But it was this incident that led to construction of the beefed-up dike, now some 35 feet high and 140 miles long.

Although it was clearly the threat of a hurricane that was causing local authorities and the Corps to scramble, the Corps offered "homeland security" as an excuse for refusing to release maps of the areas that would be inundated and estimates of the probable speed and extent of damage. An estimated 40,000 to 60,000 people live in the vulnerable zone.

A recent study put the probability of dike failure at one in six during any given year with no terrorists in sight. The situation suggests parallels with the levee-and-floodwall system meant to protect New Orleans. Only a 2002 warning of its vulnerability in the "Washing Away" series by the Times-Picayune prompted local authorities to prepare evacuation plans that probably prevented many more lives from being lost in Hurricane Katrina. In that case, too, it was engineering failures and a hurricane surge, not terrorists, that caused the disaster.

The Okeechobee case raises secrecy arguments made in the infamous 2003 federal district court case of Living Rivers v. Bureau of Reclamation. The environmental group Living Rivers had sought inundation maps in September 2001 for a failure of Glen Canyon Dam in Colorado, but the Bureau of Reclamation refused to disclose the unclassified maps, citing terrorism. Judge Tena Campbell later upheld the BuRec's interpretation of the "law enforcement" exemption of the Freedom of Information Act, which expanded it far beyond any previous interpretations. The Living Rivers case was not appealed, and its effect as a precedent may be minimal. Apparently nobody has since challenged this interpretation of FOIA in court.

The first tropical storm of the season, Alberto, missed Okeechobee and stayed below hurricane strength. Meanwhile, work to shore up the dike is on hold because the Corps discovered that its planned reinforcement method wouldn't hold water.

Last revised January 22, 2013

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