USACE preparing for active storm season

Posted 5/14/24

The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers is ready to respond to storms in the 2024 hurricane season – if and when they happen –

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USACE preparing for active storm season


The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers is ready to respond to storms in the 2024 hurricane season – if and when they happen – according to information shared in a May 13 media call.

The University of Colorado is predicting a very active hurricane season. However, USACE does not currently anticipate the need for harmful freshwater releases to the coastal estuaries this summer.

One big storm could change everything.

As of May 13, Lake Okeechobee was at 13.72 feet above sea level.

“These early season forecasts we definitely pay attention to, and they are usually pretty accurate in how much activity we will see,” said USACE Chief of Water Management Operations Savannah Lacy. “You can have a lot of hurricanes but whether they affect Lake Okeechobee or the State of Florida is totally unforecastable. We’ve had years where we’ve had a lot of hurricanes swirling around in the Atlantic and none of them have impacted Florida. You can also have one major storm and it’s the one that impacts Florida, so we do put stock in it, but as far as impact here in Florida, it’s impossible to tell. We’ll definitely be staying on our toes.”

Chief of Emergency Management Logan Wilkinson said University of Colorado  is one of the most respected universities when it comes to forecasting hurricanes.

“We’ve acknowledged that this is an extremely active season coming up,” he added. He said additional forecasts will come out throughout the season.

Lacy said how much Lake Okeechobee will rise during and after a storm depend on how much rain falls and where. She said a 1 inch rainfall over the whole Kissimmee River Basin can raise the lake by 3 inches. That is in addition to any direct rainfall over the lake.

Every situation is different, said Lacy. For example, when Hurricane Ian hit, the lake was relatively low, so even though the lake rose rapidly due to hurricane runoff from the north, USACE did not have to release water east and west to the coastal estuaries. After Ian, the lake rose about 3.3 feet in the course of a month.

“May is typically the transition month between the dry and the wet season,” said Lacy. She said it is difficult to forecast when the wet season will start.

Wilkinson said USACE stays in contact with the counties around Lake Okeechobee in regard to the condition of Herbert Hoover Dike (HHD).

The Herbert Hoover Dike is in the best condition it has ever been, said Dam Safety Program Manager Matt Taylor. With the seepage wall and culvert replacement completed, USACE is confident the dike will protect the communities around Lake O during the storm season.

“We’re operating under the assumption we will get a storm this year,” said Wilkinson. “Doing everything we can to be ready is critical at this time of year.”

“When we get a forecast for a hurricane that will impact the lake, we start answering questions,” Lacy said. They consider the lake level, potential for the lake to rise and the possible level the lake could peak.

“Our work ramps up within 24 hours of anticipated impact to Lake Okeechobee,” she explained. “We close down Herbert Hoover Dike and close down all of our spillways, our culverts -- everything is shut down so that we maintain all of our water in Lake Okeechobee. We don’t let any water leave Lake Okeechobee during a wind event. And this is to protect the downstream canals and rivers.

“When we get a wind event on the lake, we get storm surge that occurs on the lake which can make the water slosh back and forth like a giant bathtub and if any of the culverts or spillways are open, the water could come into those canals or rivers very quickly,” Lacy said.

At the same time, a lot of water is flowing very quickly into the lake from direct rainfall as well as pump stations and inflow from the north, from the Kissimmee River.

“Once the storm passes, we’re assessing downstream conditions. We have five to six major outlets from Lake Okeechobee. We’re watching where the lake level is. We’re watching how much it has risen and how much rainfall actually fell to forecast where it might go in the future and whether we need to make any releases.

“We will be watching the downstream conditions,” she said. “For example, after Hurricane Irma, there was a lot of flooding associated with Irma due to local rainfall but also from storm surge, and then we had King Tides on top of that.

“We had a lot of water that needed to get out with not a lot of capacity because of where the oceans were, and it was actually about 11 days between impact and when we assessed we could actually release water from Lake Okeechobee when it was safe enough to do so. We don’t want to flood any communities downstream,” Lacy said.

“If we do get a major storm on Lake Okeechobee this year, it’s likely we will have to make those releases after the storm,” she warned. With Hurricane Ian, the lake level was very low, and the lake had capacity to absorb the additional water.

“This year, based on where we are right now, if we did get a storm, it is likely we will have to make releases,” she said.

Lake Okeechobee, hurricane, releases