Herbert Hoover Dike being prepared for hurricane season

Published: May 2, 2022 3:04 PM EDT
Updated: May 2, 2022 5:52 PM EDT

As you prepare for this year’s hurricane season, a monumental mission is underway to make sure the Herbert Hoover Dike is leak-free and safe.

It’s hard to see how high up you are when standing on top of the Herbert Hoover Dike, but it is easy to see how many thousands of lives depend on the highest level of strength.

“It is a daily reminder that the public is right there, and they really do rely on us. We’re fortunate to be the ones out here doing that job,” said Mark Claudio, a structural engineering technician working on flood risk management.

Claudio is a significant muscle behind the dike. It’s his job to check for damages or do repairs almost every day.

“It’s a big responsibility, and we take it seriously. We do the best we can,” said Claudio.

Part of doing the best is the construction around the 143-mile-long dike. The roadway on top of it isn’t just a road. Below it, a giant cut-off wall made out of a concrete slurry holds back water that could try to seep through.

“It’s a big wall, it’s big, strong, it’s designed to keep that there and that there,” said Claudio.

Keeping the water in has been an effort since the 1920s after a hurricane caused the lake to spill its banks, killing thousands of people.

The dike then was built with gravel, rock and limestone. Today, it is stronger than ever.

The gravel, rock and limestone used decades ago never washed away, but now, those same types of stones are above ground, ready to plug a leak at any moment.

“In case there ever is a breach around the lake, we have these piles of stone. We call them armor stone,” said Claudio.

If there’s anything Claudio’s got for his job, it’s passion.

“I mean if you look at our office, we’re not coming into work every day and looking at the same thing, so it’s nice. It’s fun. It’s rewarding,” said Claudio.

The reward lies right below the dike in towns like Pahokee that still stand thanks to Claudio and the people who came before him.

“When it comes to the lives of these people there is no expense spared,” said Claudio.

Historically, only a few lives were spared. When a hurricane hit, it would flood the towns around Lake Okeechobee. That’s why the construction of the Herbert Hoover Dike began in the 1930s.

Now, just shy of the 100-year mark, there are 143 miles of the dike, renovated and ramped up, making it stronger than ever.

To protect the communities around the lake, a cut-off wall was installed in the middle of the dike to make sure water doesn’t penetrate through the other side.

It’s on all sides, that Claudio and Mike Worf check to make sure the dike’s strength is unwavering.

“We are out here looking for little things that could become big things. Because if we don’t catch them before hurricane season gets here and a big storm comes in, it’s going to take that little thing and to make it big like overnight, literally,” said Claudio.

“We have a pre-storm checklist we go by and there’s certain things that we do when we’re going around inspecting, and then after the storm, there is a post-storm checklist that we used to go around and assess the damage,” said Mike Worf, a structural engineering technician in charge of flood risk management.

Pre-storm, they shut every culvert and test every meter, but a storm or not, they check for anything out of place, daily.

“It’s no big deal. We’re out here every day, we identify those washouts and then our field engineers come in and fix them. New soil, pack them down, create it nice and smooth, put grass on top, it’s like it was never there,” said Claudio.

When a storm strengthens the reward is even greater, allowing the folks who live around the lake to live comfortably because what’s behind this dike won’t harm them through the worst of times.

By the end of this year, the cut-off wall in the middle of the structure will be complete. It’s a wall made out of a concrete slurry that is supposed to block water from seeping through.

If the dike were to experience a total failure, millions of people all the way down to Miami-Dade County would be in the water’s path.

Those repairs have been under construction since 2007. The strength of the dike is essential all year round, and the Army Corps treats every day like a hurricane could hit at any moment.