My Partner

Cost, deadline create hurdles for fixing levee that protects South Florida from Everglades flooding

Fixing the levee that keeps the Everglades from flooding South Florida communities could cost more and take longer than expected, the South Florida Water Management District revealed Wednesday.

The Broward County section of the East Coast Protective Levee fails to meet certification standards for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to an engineering assessment issued late last year.

In addition to raising safety concerns, failing to meet those federal standards could lead to inflated flood insurance costs in Weston, Coral Springs, Sunrise, Pembroke Pines and Broward’s other western communities.

While district officials once speculated that improvement costs may not exceed $10 million, on Wednesday they learned costs for South Florida taxpayers could grow and that the repair work could take longer than the two-year window FEMA allows.

“There are some uncertainties that are going to affect cost and schedule,” said Tommy Strowd, deputy district executive director. “It’s going to be a challenge to get it done in two years.”

In addition, the Army Corps of Engineers is conducting a separate review of the entire 100-mile levee that starts near West Palm Beach in Palm Beach County, stretches through Broward and extends to southern Miami-Dade County.

The Army Corps nearly two years ago raised concerns about the Palm Beach County portion of the 60-year-old earthen structure, calling that portion “minimally acceptable” — the middle rung of the Army Corps’ new levee rating system.

The failure of levees in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina led to stepped-up federal regulations for levees across the country.

Even after making levee improvements to meet the FEMA standards, the Army Corps’ review and the findings of a national levee safety commission could end up requiring more work on additional portions of the South Florida levee that separates western communities in the three counties from the Everglades water-conservation areas.

District officials insist that the levee is safe and has successfully protected South Florida communities through six decades. There is “no imminent threat of structural failure,” according to the district.

Yet, unless improvements are made to meet the FEMA standards, western Broward residents could face flood insurance increases that would be a “draconian calamity,” district board Chairman Eric Buermann said.

“We have to do what we have to do,” Buermann said about the pending repairs.

A levee that doesn’t meet FEMA’s standards results in expanding areas considered at a high risk of flooding. That could make flood insurance a requirement for more potential homebuyers in the at-risk areas and make it more expensive to obtain for residents already living in those areas.

The average flood insurance policy from the National Flood Insurance Program costs less than $570 a year. Insurance in areas considered at high-risk of flooding can cost more than $2,000 a year, depending on the amount of coverage.

The East Coast Protective Levee — built in the 1950s with limestone, shell and soil dug from the edge of the Everglades — once bordered farmland but now guards against the flooding of homes and businesses that spread west through the decades.

The structure is part of 600 miles of levees south of Lake Okeechobee that protect against flooding of former Everglades land and other wetlands drained to make way for agriculture and development.

Tropical Storm Fay’s historic soaking of South Florida in 2008 exposed vulnerable sections of the East Coast Protective Levee along the Sawgrass Expressway in Broward County, where increased amounts of water seeped through and raised concerns about erosion that could lead to a breach.

Some repairs were made, but a newly completed six-month engineering review of the Broward section of the levee shows that more fixes are needed throughout the county.

After months of drilling, surveying and reviewing maintenance records, engineers found that:

* A 1,000-foot stretch of the levee in northern Broward County, between Plantation and Coral Springs, needs to be raised about two feet to meet federal standards aimed at avoiding floodwaters “overtopping” levees.

* A berm planned along the outside base of the levee needs to be added to more portions to help stop erosion that can come from water seeping through the earthen structure. Erosion threatens the stability of the levee.

* Portions of the levee are too steep and need to be flattened out to improve stability.

* More testing and other analysis is needed to help design repairs.

The district’s repair plan includes building a 25-foot berm of crushed limestone along the outside base of portions of the levee to reduce water seepage and potential erosion. In addition the district is increasing inspections and adding monitoring equipment to signal when too much water is seeping through and raising erosion concerns.

The next step calls for completing engineering designs for proposed fixes to come up with cost estimates and time tables for making repairs.

FEMA officials have said the Broward section of the levee qualifies for a “provisional accreditation” that allows a two-year window where flood insurance rates would not be affected while the district makes levee improvements.

“It’s going to consume a lot of our financial resources,” district board member Kevin Powers said of the levee repairs. “It’s just one more thing that is going to consume us for years to come.”


Related posts