Irma prompts releases from Lake Okeechobee, where levee remains a concern

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced on Tuesday, it had started making water releases from Lake Okeechobee, including some to the Stuart area.

The Corps called it a pre-storm drawdown.

“We want to be ready for the heavy precipitation from Irma,” Corps’ Jacksonville District Commander, Col. Jason Kirk said.

The concerns related to Lake Okeechobee are storm surge and the integrity of the levee around the lake, which was identified as one of the nation’s most vulnerable dams.

While the official forecast tracks for Hurricane Irma have kept the powerful Category 5 storm moving to the northwest, some of the so-called “spaghetti” models predict Irma will move right over, or near, Lake Okeechobee.

A hurricane could create the potential for storm surge-- that’s right, a storm surge on an inland lake.

CBS12 has reported for years on concerns over Lake O’s levee. In the past decade, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has overseen a series of projects, designed to reinforce the aging dike.

Piles of boulders even sit atop the levee at several points, waiting for helicopters to move them into place, should the dike breach.

The Corps and emergency experts say a levee failure could force thousands of Western Palm Beach County residents from their homes, and put several hundred thousand acres of mostly farmland underwater.

However, Lake Okeechobee remains surprisingly low for this time of year, but based on major rain events in the past, the situation could change quickly.

The Corps said it expects to conduct the releases only about three days prior to Irma’s approach. Further releases would depend on conditions after the storm passes.

Water managers continued to dump water Tuesday out most of Southeast Florida’s coastal spillways, ultimately to tide. The releases have intensified, with Irma moving closer to South Florida.

“We’ve kept our foot on the gas, so to speak, and we’re not letting up,” said John Mitnik, chief engineer at the South Florida Water Management District.

Mitnik spoke at a briefing Tuesday at the Water District headquarters near West Palm Beach.

Mitnik said his agency expects to deal with eight to 10 inches of rain related to Irma, but where that rain falls depends on the hurricane’s track.

Although levels remain very high in parts of the Everglades, water managers say most of the system is in good shape.

“The system has been operating at a lot lower levels than you would typically see during a wet season,” Mitnik said, adding that at the time Harvey hit Texas, his agency dealt with a tropical system off Southwest Florida.

Water managers say they will work hard to lower water levels even more in the next three to four days.