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Pumped Up to Fight Frances

South Florida water officials are draining waterways to ready for the hurricane's deluge.

September 04, 2004|Chris Gaither | Times Staff Writer

LOXAHATCHEE, Fla. — Squalls heralding the arrival of Hurricane Frances crept across the swampland Friday afternoon, but five of the six massive engines at the W. Turner Wallis pumping station remained silent.

South Florida Water Management District officials had used 9-foot-wide pumps powered by those 1,600-horsepower engines to suck a network of canals flowing from Lake Okeechobee as dry as possible, to make room for the coming downpour.

There was nothing to do but wait. But if the hurricane brings as much rain as feared, officials said, this and hundreds of other pumping stations across Florida will wage a fierce battle to keep the state's waterways from flooding.

"It's going to get bad," said Gary Fischer, chief operator of the pumping station here in western Palm Beach County.

Frances is expect to bring at least 105-mile-per-hour winds and sea surges of four to five feet, officials say. But floods likely will be the bigger danger. Instead of racing through the state after it makes landfall later today, the Texas-sized storm is expected to plod slowly, dumping 7 to 12 inches of rain in many areas and close to two feet in the heaviest spots.

With the South Florida ground saturated from heavy August rains, that water will have no place to go.

That could spell serious trouble for low-lying areas. A heavy afternoon downpour dumping 5 inches of rain was once enough to flood much of coastal St. Lucie County, said Don Daniels, the county's emergency management coordinator. Frances could bring two to four times as much rain.

"More people die inland from fresh-water flooding in a typical hurricane than die on the coast from storm surges or wind effects," said Frank Lepore, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Much of Florida is built on swampland, and it would revert to that state if not carefully controlled. Engineers regulate drainage through an intricate, man-made network of canals, locks and other water-control structures.

The largest of five such agencies, the South Florida Water Management District oversees all or part of 16 counties, from near Orlando south to Key West, where 7 million of the state's 17 million residents live.

The pumping station here pulls water from the agricultural lands to the north, where sugar cane and crops are grown, and funnels it into the Everglades to the south and the Atlantic to the east.

Water management officials across the state lowered marshes, lakes and canals last week, trying to increase the waterway system's capacity. Some also built dams to impede floodwaters.

With all six Fairbanks engines running, the station can drain about 2 million gallons a minute -- enough to fill 100 backyard swimming pools.

But even at that rate, the Loxahatchee pumps can lower the water level in the canals by only three-quarters of an inch every 24 hours.

So Fischer bade his family goodbye and joined colleagues Patrick Morgan and Walter Betit at the 50-year-old pumping station Thursday evening.

With elaborate measurements to take on each engine every hour, the men will sleep on folding metal cots, eat clam chowder and Honey Nut Cheerios, and monitor the machines that will try to keep up with Frances' deluge.

"This is home," Fischer said, "for the next four or five days."

Times staff writer John-Thor Dahlburg contributed to this report.

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