Clewiston prepares as Nicole heads toward Lake Okeechobee

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A major part of the flooding Nicole could bring is along Lake Okeechobee, which would mean trouble for small towns like Clewiston.

While a flood would be catastrophic, people living in the area say they are not worried by Nicole. They don’t see the storm as dangerous as Hurricane Wilma. Some residents just see Nicole as an opportunity to take some time off.

Lake O is the largest lake in the southeast. It’s name translates to “big water” in the Seminole Indian language, which is fitting for a body of water whose opposite shore is not visible from the water’s edge. Clewiston is located along the southwest corner of the lake and is tiny by comparison.

“I’m not worried at all, even though we do have a lot of wind and stuff, but I’m OK,” said Angelica Mejia, of Clewiston. “My kids went to school today, they didn’t get canceled. They’re going to the sports, which they’re all indoors.”

But Hendy County emergency managers said residents shouldn’t ignore the storm.

“I think the biggest thing right now is just that people ensure that they have their hurricane supplies together, water perishable, non-perishable foods, and just potential for some power outages that, you know, as we’ve experienced in the last couple of months,” said Hendry County public information officer Emily Hunter.

Ian did some damage but the more memorable storm for the Clewiston area is Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

Phyllis Wilkinson remembers the winds sustained an average of 92 miles an hour.

“Did a lot of damage around the home that is all repaired, hadn’t had any problems,” Wilkinson said.

Meanwhile, Mejia, who has lived in Clewiston all her life said she is enjoying the weather.

“It’s a nice breeze, you know,” Mejia said.

She also said she believes in the dike that protects Clewiston from floods.

Lake Okeechobee

“I know they have been working on the lake to reinforce that. So really, I’m not that worried,” Mejia said.

The Army Corp of Engineers, which has oversight of Lake Okeechobee, said the water levels remain higher after Ian, hovering at around 16 feet, that’s 2 feet hired than Sept. 28 when Ian made landfall in Southwest Florida.

Because of Ian, historic levels of rain fell north of Lake O, helping to fuel its rise.

“It’s not just direct rainfall on the lake but it’s whole, the whole Kissimmee River Valley, and all the watershed north of the lake drains into the lake. So when that gets wet, it will flow into the lake,” said Barry Rosen, professor in The Water School at FGCU. “When it goes up a foot, that’s 450,000-acre feet of water.”

Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani said that also creates issues below the surface.

“The longer the lake’s, Lake elevations stays above 15 and a half 16 feet, the more impact it’s going to have on the lakes, plant communities and the fish and wildlife that depend on those communities,” Cassani said.

It kills the vegetation on the bottom of the lake, Rosen said.

The Army Corps of Engineers said more water could mean more water releases to the Caloosahatchee estuary, leading to more water issues in Southwest Florida.

“We’re really kind of worried that, you know, if we get an algae bloom from, you know, this precipitated by the lake releases, then, you know, that’s just terrible thing for the estuary and the whole river system,” Cassani said.

While Nicole’s current track doesn’t bode well for the lake, testing shows there aren’t any major toxic blooms on the lake at the moment.

While Wilkinson isn’t too worried, for Canadian Andre LaFlamme and his group of campers, Nicole meant an early end to their vacation.

“Yeah, they told us somebody came with from the state because it’s a state-owned campground. And they told us that we have you have to go. And that’s it,” LaFlamme said.

Their tropical vacation, now moved to the Walmart parking lot.

“It’s an adventure. It’s different. Definitely. We’re gonna have, we’re gonna talk about it for a while I think,” he said.

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