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WEATHER : Multiple Storms Saturate the Sunshine State : South Florida's wild, wet season has put a strain on an already overburdened flood control network.

October 25, 1995|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MIAMI — Alligators roaming the streets of suburbia, thousands of deer drowned in the Everglades, acres of flooded neighborhoods and miles of beachfront homes destroyed by hurricanes--and that is just a partial list of the problems Florida faces after being battered over the past three months by two hurricanes and rainfall of near-Biblical measure.

Now, as skies begin to clear, there's a new concern: what to do with all the water that has turned the saturated Sunshine State into a balloon about to burst.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 26, 1995 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Florida floods--A story in Wednesday's editions of The Times described Lake Okeechobee in Florida as the second-largest freshwater body in the United States. More correctly, it is the second largest such lake wholly within the country. The five Great Lakes, four of which border Canada, are larger.

Sandbagging operations began Tuesday after several leaks were discovered in the massive earthen levee that rings Lake Okeechobee, where water levels crept up to 18.5 feet above sea level, the highest ever recorded. Eric Jeffcoat, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, said that four to six "sand boils," or holes, which erupted overnight in a half-a-mile section of the levee near Clewiston were "a potential but not an imminent hazard."

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About 55,000 people live along the south rim of Lake Okeechobee in a fertile plain of sugar cane and vegetable fields.

"The levee is designed to take water to 21.5 feet but it's alarming because people haven't seen water this high in 50 years or so," Jeffcoat said Tuesday. "I think it's going to be fine. Our office is right here next to the levee and we're not moving."

Meantime, with floodgates open, fresh water from the 730-square-mile lake was pouring into the delicate South Florida estuaries on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, leading to what biologists agreed would be a disaster for marine life.

"It's devastating," said Dan Haunert, a biologist with the South Florida Water Management District. With salinity levels dropping, Haunert said that sea grasses, mollusks and fish could die and the ecosystem could be destroyed. "This is way beyond the envelope," said Haunert, "the worst I've seen in 20 years."

The year's wild weather, featuring one of the most active hurricane seasons in history and rainfall totals of 20 inches above normal in some areas, have served to put further stress on an already troubled plumbing system made up of 1,500 miles of canals and hundreds of locks and dams in an area stretching from south of Orlando to the Florida Keys.

At the heart of the system is Lake Okeechobee, the second-largest freshwater body in the United States, a bass and bluegill fishing mecca where a water level of 16.5 feet is normal. But chronically high water levels in the Everglades south of the lake have forced engineers to interrupt the normal sheet flow through the "river of grass," and the lake has grown deep from rains and water pumped from agricultural areas.

The Herbert Hoover Dike, a 106-mile earthen collar around the lake built after flooding from two 1920s hurricanes claimed 2,500 lives, is thick and secure, most residents believe. "There is some normal seepage under the dike but there is no real concern about it failing," said Ken Schenck, city manager of Pahokee, a farming community on the shore.

But heavy rains last week delayed the sugar cane harvest in the fields south of the lake and all of South Florida seems waterlogged.

Under siege for more than a year from artificially high water levels are the 375 members of the Miccosukee Indian Tribe who live along a five-mile strip of land in the 1.4-million-acre Everglades National Park. They are suing the federal government, charging that the flood control system is discriminatory.

Also threatened is an abundance of subtropical wildlife. Biologist Jim Schuette of the state's Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, says that there is virtually no high ground in the Everglades and that thousands of deer, raccoons, marsh rabbits and mice have perished. The survivors have taken refuge on the levees.

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"The Indians report that the owls, which normally eat rodents, are taking songbirds because there aren't any rodents," Schuette said.

In the swamped hardwood hammocks of the Everglades, even the tall trees that make up the upper story--mastics, red bay and strangler figs--have begun to die, Schuette said. "Some of these trees are 60 years old," he said.

Water managers said that, if the forecast of diminishing rains is accurate, the lake level will start to drop in the next few days. But with another month to go in a hurricane season that already has given birth to 17 tropical storms, nothing could be less predictable than the weather.

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