The Society of Environmental Journalists is urging the Army Corps of Engineers to release inundation maps showing areas that would be flooded in the event of a sudden failure of the Herbert Hoover Dike which holds back Lake Okeechobee in southern Florida.
At the urging of its First Amendment Task Force, SEJ said in a June 29, 2006, letter to Florida Corps officials, that release of the maps was required under the Freedom of Information Act, and that it is in the public interest to let people know when they are in such danger.
Failure of an earlier Lake Okeechobee levee during a 1928 hurricane killed over 2,500 people.
Florida news media reported this month that the Corps there refused to give them copies of inundation maps, citing homeland security concerns. In its letter, SEJ tells the Corps' Jacksonville District Commander, Col. Robert M. Carpenter, that the FOIA law contains no such exemption for unclassified information.
"The Herbert Hoover Dike faces far more frequent and reliable threats from hurricanes than from terrorists," the SEJ wrote in its letter. "Fortunately, it should be far easier for residents and local officials to plan for a hurricane than a terrorist attack if they are provided with enough information to do so. Given what we have all learned from the unfortunate loss of life and property during Hurricane Katrina last year, it seems clear that informing people within the vulnerable zone is crucial to helping them make good decisions about preparation and evacuation."
SEJ's letter noted that immediately after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Mississippi Valley division of the Corps at first attempted to restrict information about weaknesses in the New Orleans levees, citing terrorism concerns. After being challenged, it quickly admitted the information was public and released it.
Several Florida newspapers have published editorials urging the Corps to release the maps.