Hurricane Matthew: Southeast Florida Vulnerable

Within hours, Hurricane Matthew will smash its Category 4 chaos on the narrow, flat peninsula that is the State of Florida. And here I sit, safe from this destructive powerhouse about which many in my area remain blissfully unaware; writing from my porch in tiny West Bend, WI. Despite this distance, what I know from research is that, while the evacuation of humans from the highest-risk areas may prove effective in saving lives, in every other way Florida cannot possibly be ready for this.

Category 4 is massive. It has been over 100 years since a Category 4 hurricane hit Florida.

Hurricane Matthew Slams Into Bahamas
Hurricane Matthew Slams Into Bahamas

And that was the ONLY time.

The deadliest hurricane on record happened in Galveston, TX, in 1900. That hurricane? Category 4.  To add perspective, Hurricane Katrina — infamous for its horrific explosion on the City of New Orleans — was Category 3.

The only Category 5 hurricane to hit the USA was Andrew, in 1992. Fortunately for Florida, Andrew did not dump loads of rain. Why? Because the dikes holding back Lake Okeechobee can handle heavy winds and fallen trees. Excessive amounts of rainfall? Not so much.

According to Lloyds Emerging Risk Team, Southest Florida’s Lake Okeechobee – roughly the size of Rhode Island —  is the second most hurricane-vulnerable place in the United States, right behind New Orleans. Eventually, the Lake’s dikes can contain only so much water.

Currently, according to Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Lake Okeechobee’s depth sits at near-record averages of about 15.5 feet:

“Okeechobee water levels continue at almost record highs after an extremely wet summer and fall. The current water level on Lake Okeechobee as of September 25, 2016 is 15.66 ft. NGVD, just over a foot higher than last year. The lake level has increased almost a foot within the last month.”

Hurricane Matthew will drop at least 7″ of rain into the Lake, causing a rise of perhaps 2-feet. It is possible Matthew will pour 10″ or more — and that could create as much as a 3-foot rise.

The lowest of Okeechobees dikes rests at slightly higher than 18 feet — uncomfortably low with Hurricane Matthew approaching, according John Campbell of the Army Corp of Engineers.

Parts of the Herbert Hoover Dike that surrounds Lake Okeechobee start to become vulnerable at 17.5 feet, Campbell noted. 

“Certainly our concern all year is what happens if we get a lot of precipitation and the lake level rises,” Campbell said. “A (rise over 17 feet) would take us to areas where historically we’ve had some challenges and it’s certainly something we’d like to avoid.”

An unfortunate byproduct of Hurricane Matthew may be that the historic HABs (Harmful Algae Blooms) of 2016, which wiped out most of Southeast Florida’s Gold Coast tourist season, will repeat themselves in 2017. Hundreds of millions in tourist dollars will again be at stake.

For area businesses who rely on tourist trade, this loss of income would clearly be devastating.

That said, if Matthew causes a breech to a significant piece of the Lake Okeechobee dike — and this possibility is at present razor-thin close — Southeast Florida will be looking at a disaster reminiscent to what we saw in New Orleans, with Hurricane Katrina.

In two days, we’ll know.

 

Lake Okeechobee … a thumbnail explanation for HAB crisis.

No doubt about it … Florida is in crisis-mode as it contends with the horrible side-effects of Harmful Algae Blooms (HAB). Unfortunately, the crisis was all to predictable, after nearly unprecedented torrential winter rains filled Lake Okeechobee to threateningly high levels — and resulted in mass-draining of the polluted (see: toxic) lake.

ABC News reported on July 4th that Florida’s Gold Coast is suffering from a nearly worst-ever tourist turnout. Hundreds of millions of tourist dollars have already been lost, and more economic fallout will follow.

As far back as 1999, concerns over phosphorus loading from agriculture were being presented by the State of Florida Environmental Protection Agency. In 2011, even more clarity regarding phosphorus runoff into Lake Okeechobee, largely from area agriculture, was brought to light:

Water quality in the lake has degraded over time due to high phosphorus loadings resulting from man-induced hydrologic and land use modifications over the past 60 years. The total phosphorus concentrations that currently exist in the lake are in excess of the amount needed for a healthy ecosystem. The in-lake total phosphorus concentrations have doubled over the last 50 years ….

Gold Coast Algae Bloom
Gold Coast Algae Bloom

With all the aforementioned heavy rain, in February, 2016, concerns over flooding resulted in the Army Corp of Engineers decision to drain Lake of Okeechobee at a rate of 70,000 gallons per second. And eventually all this dirty water flows to the tourist areas … bringing HABs with it.

A February 26, 2016 article by ThinkProgress.org was downright prophetic in predicting the “What Happens Next” stemming from this inevitable, if ill-fated, decision.

The simple fact is this: too many nutrients in water are a bad thing. They present a problem that spreads with runoff from land, which flows into waterways and then moves to other areas. Florida’s Gold Coast may be the latest, and most glaring example. But it is far from the only one.

South Florida HAB outbreak all too predictable

Less than two months ago, Clean Water Warrior (CWW) noted that the Florida Keys, and the fragile coral reef surrounding them, were always at risk from Harmful Algae Blooms (HAB). These blooms are largely caused by hot weather and, just as importantly or perhaps even more so, rain-induced nutrient runoff from agriculture and communities.

Today, as the Army Corp of Engineers drains water from Lake Okeech0bee — the result of unusually heavy rains from the 2016 rainy season (tied, of course, to global warming) – South Florida is in a full-blown HAB crisis.

This quote, taken from CNN’s excellent July 1, 2016 coverage of the HAB crisis, tells the grim tale as well as any:

Jordan Schwartz, owner of the Ohana Surf Shop, said he wanted to cry when he saw the green slime — a toxic algae bloom — covering his swath of Stuart Beach on Florida’s east coast.

“Animals are in distress, some are dying, the smell is horrible,” he told CNN on Friday. “You have to wear a mask in the marina and the river. It’s heartbreaking and there is no end in sight. The economic impact is devastating,” he said. “This town is 100% driven by tourism but the tourism is empty,” he said. “You go to the beach and it’s the height of summer and we have empty beaches, empty restaurants, empty hotels.”

The typical rogues gallery of offenders, which working in concert typically explain why HAB’s appear,

STuarts_FL-Docks_Algae
Algae-covered water at Stuart’s Central Marine boat docks

is again at work. Too much rain,creating too much runoff, flowing with too few natural or man-made restrictions into waterways that eventually pour too much phosphorus and nitrogen into slower moving waters, lakes, and, in this case, ocean shoreline.

Bottom line: the best chance of reducing HABs is to control what can be controlled. Rain? No. Man-made construction to re-route water, dam, or chemically alter? Maybe — but at an often exceedingly high price. Reduction of nutrients applied to land? Yes. Creating large land buffers to capture much more of the nutrients before they enter the waterways? Yes.
And it is with the last two solutions that Florida must start. Cooperation, not finger-pointing, is the key.

Florida Keys? No Immunity From Nutrient Runoff

It is more than a guilty pleasure. I am an addict for watching the terrific Netflix Original Series “Bloodline.” So much so, that I just had to explore how, or if, nutrient runoff is having an impact on the Florida Keys’ beautiful and environmentally fragile area.

What I found is typical and, at least for me in this case, disheartening.

Despite the myriad abusers of the only continental coral reef in the United States, a reef that is third in size only to those that exist off the coasts of Australia and Belize, its number one threat remains nutrient runoff.

This passage from Reef Relief Founders is particularly unsettling:

Florida Keys Coral Reef
Florida Keys Coral Reef (NOAA)
Corals require clean, nutrient-free waters to thrive. A healthy coral reef has from 30-40% live coral coverage.  However, in the Florida Keys, coral coverage is now reduced to an alarming 3%.  Coral spawning has been reduced due to lack of healthy coral colonies and clean water.
 

The over-abundance of nutrients in the ocean is the single biggest threat to Florida’s coral reefs. Nutrients is a scientific term for organic and inorganic materials that can include phosphates, and/or nitrates, usually from untreated and partially treated sewage, fertilizers and other pollutants.  They promote algal blooms which rob the water of oxygen and compete with corals for habitat. Every year, 700 tons of nutrients are discharged into Keys waters from agricultural run-off from the Everglades. Another 33 tons of land-based sources of pollution are discharged from the landbase in the Keys, primarily from inadequately treated sewage and stormwater.  Harmful algal blooms can result in eutrophication, when oxygen levels become so low that fish and other marinelife cannot survive.

With a nutrient discharge of 700 tons, Everglades agricultural runoff dwarfs the relatively meager 33 tons coming from land-based communities in the Keys.
As ever, however there is encouraging news. This time coming from a three-year Oregon State University study. The results? Reduce pollution, particularly nutrient runoff — which is relatively easy to accomplish, the study says, through improved sanitation and best farming practices — and the Florida Keys reefs make a dramatic comeback.
In as little as one year.