Army Corps prepares Lake Okeechobee ahead of ‘extremely active’ hurricane season

Reporter: Elizabeth Biro
Published: Updated:

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said human life is its number one priority.

The Corps is in charge of keeping the water level on Lake Okeechobee at a manageable level so that if a storm comes, the lake can handle the extra water.

In February, the Corps implemented releases to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Estuary to bring lake levels down ahead of the 2024 hurricane season, which is already forecasted to be “extremely active.”

The plan worked. Evaporation and those releases brought the lake down two and a half feet. As of Wednesday, May 15, 2024, Lake Okeechobee stands at 13.73 feet. Here is where you can check water levels for yourself.

Thankfully, we did not have any major releases after Ian and Nicole because the lake was low enough before those storms.

But this year, since we saw a good amount of rain in what would normally be considered our dry season, the lake rose at a time when it would normally recede, leading to those earlier releases.

The Corps said we are in a good spot right now as we begin the rainy season. Now, they will monitor the timing of tropical activity near and over Lake O.

“If we got that hurricane early in the season, we would be less prone to have to go to higher level releases. But if you’re late in the season, you’re almost assured that we’re going to take that rainfall and have to move that water off,” said Colonel James Booth, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The reason is that tropical activity combined with the rainy season can increase water levels. Another big concern is back-to-back or late season storms.

Booth continued, “It’s not just because of that hurricane and that water sitting there; it’s moving the water off the lake in case there is another storm that comes in behind it.”

Many of the same concerns that exist along the Gulf and our rivers exist on Lake O. It can experience storm surge and flooding.

The Corps spent $2 billion on improvements to Herbert Hoover Dike in the past two decades. The 143-mile earthen dam system encircles Lake Okeechobee and is routinely inspected. It reduces impacts from flooding as a result of high lake levels for a large area of south Florida.

Booth said the Dike is in better shape than it’s ever been. Still, when the lake reaches dangerously high levels, the Corps must release water to the estuaries.

Historical perspective

Historically, hurricanes have been an issue for the area.

September 17, 1928, a hurricane crossed over Lake O. The scene was one of unimaginable loss. 2,500 people were killed.

Dike after the 1928 hurricane. CREDIT: Florida Memory archives

Pictured above are makeshift coffins stacked alongside the road between Belle Glade and Pahokee following the hurricane.

1947 – A major hurricane caused flooding, prompting Congress to authorize the widening and raising of existing levees and the construction of an additional 59 miles of levee.

1960 – The levees are renamed the Herbert Hoover Dike.

On the cusp of this hurricane season, the Corps is prepared for it.

Colorado State University forecasts 23 named storms, 11 hurricanes, and five major hurricanes. The Army Corps uses CSU’s predictions to prepare.

Copyright ©2024 Fort Myers Broadcasting. All rights reserved.

This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written consent.