Flood control systems protect South Floridians

OKEECHOBEE — The Central and South Florida Flood Control Project, had some unintended consequences, but the project did what the engineers set out to do, and because of that flood control project millions of people now live, work, play and farm in areas that would otherwise be under water part of the year.

The South Florida pioneers knew which areas would flood. They anticipated and found ways to live with periodic flooding. They built their homes on high ground … or on stilts.

During the wet season, some roads were regularly closed due to high water.

Today, most South Florida residents expect government to protect their homes and businesses from floods. They expect roadways to be safe and open.

“In 1947 we had these massive floods. We got about the same amount of rain in ’47 that we got in 2016,” said Water Resources Analysis Coalition member Mark Generales at the June 7 WRAC meeting.

“Did we have any flooding of any significance in 2016? To the best of my knowledge, we didn’t,” he said.

“The district has not done a good job of talking about what I think is its primary job, and that is public safety,” he said.

At the June 14 meeting of the South Florida Water Management District meeting, Chairman Federico Fernandez said June is Flood Awareness Month.

“June represents an ideal time to remember the ability to live, work and raise families in South Florida depends on the work in many instances that we do here and water management systems across the board,” he said.

“I am proud the work the district staff does ensures the flood control system, built over 60 years ago for 2 million people performs to today’s standards of providing flood control services for more than 8.1 million South Floridians,” he said.

Flood control

In 1947, after several years of drought, Florida was deluged by rainfall that averaged 100 inches along the lower east coast, nearly twice the normal rainfall, according to the South Florida Water Management District records.

Next came the storms. In September and October two hurricanes and a tropical storm battered the ‘Sunshine’ state, leaving most of the state from Orlando south submerged.

Roads and streets were flooded.

Cattle drowned, as did deer and other wildlife that could not find high ground.

Much of the ground had already been saturated before two hurricanes hit the state late in the year, and flooding throughout the region was devastating.

According to records in the University of Florida/IFAS library, in 1947 flood water inundated outlying suburban areas of West Palm Beach, and 30 percent of the city of Fort Lauderdale, including the business district, railroads, industrial and residential sections. Large areas in the  western part of Miami and the outlying communities of Miami Springs and Hialeah were under water.

The flood damaged roads, utilities, railroads and airports in the coastal area.

Newspaper articles from 1947 and 1948 tell the story. The Sept. 19, 1947 edition of the Okeechobee News, called the Sept. 17 hurricane “the worst since 1928” and noted the heavy rainfall that came with the hurricane lasted more than a week. “… the town and most neighboring sections were flooded with water and the cattle pastures were, most of them, almost completely under water,” the article states.

The Oct. 17, 1947, edition of the Okeechobee News relates “storm and flood damage over weekend was serious.”

“Thousands of residents of lowland areas were forced to seek refuge elsewhere,” the newspaper story continues. Throughout South Florida, thousands of refugees from the flooding were housed in schools and other public buildings.

The people of South Florida cried out for flood control, newspaper stories explain.

The State of Florida asked the federal government for a master plan to tame nature’s excesses.

In 1948, the U.S. Congress adopted legislation creating the Central and Southern Florida (C&SF) Project, the largest civil works project in the country. Construction began the next year and continued over 20 years as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the massive flood control plumbing system stretching from just south of Orlando to Florida Bay, according to the SFWMD archives.

In 1948, the Florida Legislature created the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control District, the predecessor to the South Florida Water Management District, to manage the C&SF Project.

According to the Duke University Wetlands Center, “The C&SF Project had three main components. First, it established a perimeter levee through the eastern portion of the Everglades, blocking sheet flow so that lands farther east would be protected from direct Everglades flooding. This levee severed the eastern 16 percent of the Everglades from its interior. Second, the C&SF Project designed a large area of northern Everglades, south of Lake Okeechobee, to be managed for agriculture. Named the Everglades Agriculture Area (EAA), it encompassed about 27 percent of the historic Everglades and was a major factor in the economic justification of the C&SF Project. Third, water conservation became the primary designated use for most of the remaining Everglades between the EAA and Everglades National Park, limited on the east by the eastern perimeter levee and on the west by an incomplete levee bordering the Big Cypress Swamp.”

The plan to set aside some Everglades land for urban development and some for farming was key to obtaining the funding for the flood control project. The state and the federal governments wanted to see some economic return on the investment of tax dollars.

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