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On Sept. 16, 1928 — back when Florida was still the least populated state in the Southeast and the Everglades was still considered a worthless swamp — the Sunshine State and its River of Grass got hammered by an early version of Hurricane Katrina. It remains the second deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, and the most important event in Florida history: bigger than the invention of air conditioning, the arrival of Disney or the deadlocked 2000 election.
The 1928 storm crashed into the coast with 140-mile-an-hour winds, like Katrina’s, then blasted Lake Okeechobee through a flimsy dike, as Katrina would do to Lake Pontchartrain and its levees. Government officials ignored dire warnings before it struck, as they would before Katrina, and most of its 2,500 fatalities were low-income blacks stranded in low-lying floodplains, like so many of Katrina’s. But today, the Okeechobee hurricane is remembered mostly for being featured in the harrowing climax of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God — that is, when it’s remembered at all.

It ought to be. The U.S. government’s response to the storm — first building a massive dike around Lake Okeechobee, and eventually funding a gargantuan and complex engineering project to control all of South Florida’s water — helped transform America’s last frontier into America’s land of dreams: a retirement mecca, winter playground and sugar bowl. Two thousand miles of levees and canals helped convert millions of acres of uninhabitable wetlands into a crowded paradise of subdivisions, strip malls and the world’s highest concentration of golf courses. Even more than air conditioning, bug spray or Social Security, the water-control efforts launched in the wake of the 1928 hurricane are the reason Florida became the most populated state in the Southeast.

Decades later, they’ve also had a devastating side effect: They ravaged the Everglades and its ecosystem, which is now undergoing the largest environmental restoration project in history — a $10 billion taxpayer-funded rescue mission to save its 69 endangered species and recreate the natural flow of fresh water that was its lifeblood. Once reviled as a pestilential hellhole, the Everglades is now revered as an imperiled national treasure.

But now experts are afraid that history is about to repeat itself. The Hoover Dike — the massive ring around Lake Okeechobee — is leaking, and an independent engineering report commissioned by the state of Florida recently declared it “a grave and imminent danger to the people and the environment of South Florida.” The April 27, 2006, report estimated a 50 percent chance of a dike failure within the next four years, and warned that the next storm could trigger a reprise of the 1928 catastrophe — this time with about 40,000 people living in the shadow of the dike and millions more in the floodplain. “It’s a scary situation,” says engineer Les Bromwell, the report’s lead author. “The more we learned, the more concerned we got.”

South Florida will be the ultimate test of sustainable development — the place where we’ll figure out whether we can live in harmony with our environment. The politicians and engineers all say they’re determined to reverse the mistakes of the past, but with the entire region on the brink of an ecological disaster, Mother Nature seems poised to exact revenge for decades of abuse.

NEXT: PAID THE PRICE >

[Header = Paid the price]PAID THE PRICE

It's hard to imagine a time when South Florida wasn’t covered by tract homes, souvenir shops and Jiffy Lubes, but not so long ago it was covered by water. The 1880 census of Dade County — which at the time included almost all of the Florida peninsula south of Lake Okeechobee — found a grand total of 257 people. As late as 1897, an explorer named Hugh Willoughby embarked on a Lewis-and-Clark–style journey of discovery across South Florida in a dug-out canoe. “It may seem strange,” he marveled, “for the general public to learn that in our very midst ... we have a tract of land 130 miles long and 70 miles wide that is as much unknown to the white man as the heart of Africa.”

That tract, of course, was the Everglades, a broad sheet of shallow water spread across a seemingly infinite prairie of serrated sawgrass. It had no canyons, cliffs or hills, no glaciers, geysers or craters; it looked like the world’s largest and grassiest puddle, the flattest and wettest meadow, or the widest and slowest-moving stream. It began where Lake Okeechobee spilled over its lower lip, and seeped all the way down Florida’s southern thumb to the ragged mangrove fringes of Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The Seminole Indians called it Pa-Hay-Okee, or “Grassy Water.” The bard of the Everglades, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, later dubbed it the River of Grass. It wasn’t obviously beautiful, but it was obviously unique.

“No country that I have ever heard of bears any resemblance to it,” another explorer wrote.

Then, as now, the Everglades was astonishingly flat. It declined less than two inches per mile, so that water lingered throughout the area during most of the year, recharging its underground aquifers. It was also an amazingly productive ecosystem, teeming with panthers, otters, orchids and magnificent flocks of wading birds that seemed to darken the sky. It was the only place on earth where gators and crocs lived side by side, and the only place where Everglades minks, Everglade snail kites and Cape Sable sparrows lived, period. It was home to 1,100 species of trees and plants, 350 birds, and 52 varieties of porcelain-smooth, candy-striped tree snails. Fish were so bountiful in the estuaries where freshwater from the Everglades met the salty water of the Gulf of Mexico that Native Americans formed North America’s first permanent settlement nearby, in a mosquito-choked mangrove swamp at the edge of the ecosystem.

But the white men who explored the Everglades in the 19th century saw the wetlands as wastelands. They described the Everglades as a “God-forsaken,” “unredeemable,” “good-for-nothing” hellscape, too wet to farm but too dry to sail, swarming with snakes and blood-thirsty mosquitoes. In 1848, the first U.S. government report on the Everglades noted that “the first and most abiding impression is the utter worthlessness to civilized man,” declaring it “suitable only for the haunt of noxious vermin, or the resort of pestilential reptiles.” But the report also noted that if the swamp could be drained, it could become an agricultural empire — and that the statesman who transformed it would be a hero to posterity. The report also suggested how to accomplish this: Drain Lake Okeechobee with canals east to the St. Lucie River and west to the Caloosahatchee River, so that the lake would no longer spill into the Everglades; then drain the Everglades with more canals.

Politicians, engineers and developers followed that drainage blueprint for the next century. The most important was Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, an energetic steamboat captain who smuggled guns to Cuban revolutionaries before he was elected governor of Florida on a drain-the-swamp platform in 1904. Broward declared water the enemy of the people of Florida, and vowed to create an “Empire of the Everglades.” He was a progressive and a conservationist in the mold of his friend Teddy Roosevelt; he supported the “wise use” of natural resources, and pledged in his inaugural address that his top priority would be saving the Everglades — not from drainage and development, but from oblivion. In fact, Florida’s leading conservationist of the early 20th century, John Gifford — the editor of a national magazine called Conservation— dedicated a book of Everglades essays to the governor, proclaiming Broward’s drainage scheme “the greatest conservation project in the United States.”

But the Everglades turned out to be a resilient enemy, and Broward’s canals swiftly unleashed a torrent of unintended consequences. During the dry season, they shunted precious water out of the Everglades, fueling muck fires, salt water intrusion that ruined local drinking wells, and rapid subsidence of the rich black soil that had attracted settlers to the Everglades in the first place. But during the rainy season the canals were overwhelmed, and Florida swampland became a land-by-the-gallon punch line. Still, pioneers kept pouring into the Everglades, inspired by pledges of drainage and visions of prosperity.

In 1928, they paid the price. After ravaging a 100-mile swath of the Florida coast, burying West Palm Beach under 5 feet of splintered wood and shattered glass, the hurricane steamrolled across the Everglades and whipped Lake Okeechobee into a frenzy. The lake soon blasted through its muck dike like a truck driving through pudding, sending a 15-foot tsunami through the Everglades, drowning the towns of Miami Locks, South Bay, Chosen, Pahokee and Belle Glade. Survivors clung for life to floating fence posts, tree trunks, rooftops, chimneys and cows, avoiding swarms of cottonmouths that were just as desperate to escape the deluge. “The monstropolous beast had left his bed,” Hurston wrote. A cleanup worker named Chester Young later found bloated bodies under beds, in trees, strewn across fields, and floating in canals. Hundreds of unidentified bodies were tossed into piles, doused in oil, and burned in roadside funeral pyres.

“There was so much death in so many gruesome conditions that we became somewhat immune to it,” Young wrote.

NEXT: DAMAGE DONE >

[Header = Damage done]DAMAGE DONE

After the storm, President Herbert Hoover — an engineer by training — ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to encircle Lake Okeechobee with a 35-foot-tall wall that would be known as the Hoover Dike. Hoover intensified America’s long-running war against nature — he spent more money on public works than all his predecessors combined, much of it on floodcontrol projects like the better-known Hoover Dam — and the Army Corps provided the shock troops, sculpting landscapes into more convenient arrangements for mankind. The Hoover Dike successfully caged the monstropolous beast, hiding the lake behind a reinforced-concrete hill twice the size of the levees that would protect New Orleans from Lake Pontchartrain, forever severing the Everglades from its wellspring.

But while the Hoover Dike ended the overflow from the lake, it could not break South Florida’s cycle of floods and fires, underdrainage and overdrainage. After World War II, the Army Corps finally seized control of nearly every drop of rain that fell on South Florida when they undertook the Central and Southern Florida Project, an unprecedented latticework of more than 2,000 miles of levees and canals, along with pumps so powerful their engines had to be cannibalized from nuclear submarines. “We had to control the water — make it do our bidding,” the Army Corps boasted in a postwar propaganda film called Waters of Destiny. “Central and Southern Florida just lay there, waiting helplessly to be soaked and dried and burned out again ... Something had to be done, and something was.”

Together, the Hoover Dike and the Central and Southern Florida Project made the region safe for one of the biggest development booms in human history. The backwater that was once south Florida was converted into a megalopolis of 7 million residents and 50 million annual tourists. The sinuous Kissimmee River, at the headwaters of the Everglades, was wrestled into an arrow-straight ditch so that cattle could graze in its floodplain. The northern Everglades became sugar fields. The eastern Everglades was overrun by sprawling suburbs, with the Sawgrass and Palmetto Expressways replacing sawgrass and palmettos, and communities like Sunrise, Miami Springs, Miami Lakes, Weston and Wellington invading the river of grass. The Sawgrass mall, Burger King’s international headquarters, Miami International Airport and the Florida Panthers hockey arena were all built on what were once Everglades wetlands. “Central and Southern Florida,” the Waters of Destiny narrator solemnly intoned, “is no longer nature’s fool.”

But again, efforts to subdue nature produced another cascade of unintended consequences. Highways, driveways and fairways replaced marshes that once provided kitchens and nurseries for wildlife, while also storing and purifying water for human consumption. Today, half the Everglades has been drained or paved for agriculture and development, and the other half is an ecological mess — sometimes too dry, sometimes too wet, polluted by runoff from sugar fields and suburbs, dammed and diverted by flood control run amok. Ninety percent of the wading birds that once flocked to the area are now gone, and its panthers are so inbred that males have been born without testicles (and therefore unable to propagate the species).

The decline has damaged people as well as critters. The extreme degradation of Everglades National Park, Lake Okeechobee, Florida Bay, and the coral reefs off the Keys have imperiled an ecotourism industry that attracts millions of bird-watchers, anglers and divers to the region. Unchecked sprawl has endangered the aquifers that store most of South Florida’s drinking water, produced brutal traffic and overcrowded schools, and whittled away the greenery that gave South Florida its unique sense of place. In 1995, a Governor’s Commission composed of 42 South Floridians from all walks of life unanimously concluded that their paradise was going to hell. “It is easy to see that our present course in South Florida is not sustainable,” the commission warned.

For the region’s water managers, the worst-case scenario is a reprise of the 1928 dike collapse. So whenever Lake Okeechobee gets high, they pump billions of gallons of water east and west through the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee canals, ravaging the delicate balance of fresh and salt water in the canals’ estuaries. Manatees and dolphins go belly up, and red tides produced by algae are so pervasive that beachgoers have developed breathing problems. And Bromwell’s new report suggests that the desperate measures undertaken when water levels get too high may not prevent another disaster. The Hoover Dike leaks whenever the lake rises to 18 feet above sea level, and the obliteration of the wetlands that once provided natural water storage during storm surges has made it almost impossible for water managers to keep the lake low. In 2004, when four hurricanes swept through the region, lake levels suddenly jumped 6 feet. The Army Corps will spend about $40 million this year to try to strengthen the dike, but the state is frantically devising evacuation plans for the residents of lakefront communities, and the price tag for true stability could escalate well into the billions. “We’re paying the price for what we’ve done to Mother Nature,” says Paul Gray, the Lake Okeechobee scientist for the Audubon Society.

Bromwell, the lead author of the report, lives in Vero Beach, on the St. Lucie River. He’s watched it turn brown, and he’s caught trout that have the telltale lesions caused by lake releases. But he knows that for now, those environmentally disastrous releases must continue — and may not be enough to avert a more traditional disaster. “I just hope people evacuate in time,” he says. The Army Corps commander in Florida, Robert Carpenter, recently criticized the report’s tone as “downright irresponsible,” but he didn’t question the report’s findings.

“The folks who brought you Katrina say, ‘Don’t worry,’” Bromwell says. “I worry.”

NEXT: RESTORATION >

[Header = Restoration]RESTORATION

The story of Katrina is a similar brew of engineering hubris and unintended consequences. Army Corps levees helped protect New Orleans from the Mississippi River, but they also ravaged hundreds of square miles of coastal marshes that once served as hurricane speed bumps, helping to protect New Orleans from the Gulf of Mexico. One Army Corps project — the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet — actually intensified Katrina’s storm surge. And poorly designed Army Corps floodwalls buckled and drowned New Orleans.

Today, we’ve learned the dangers of building our civilizations in floodplains: they tend to flood. The key to preventing disaster following another hurricane like Katrina or the 1928 storm in South Florida will be to find a place to put all the water that used to sit in Everglades wetlands. The long-term hope lies with Everglades restoration, which is mostly a water-storage plan designed to replace the region’s bulldozed wetlands with a system of reservoirs and wells. The idea is to stop pumping excess water into the lake and the estuaries, and start storing it so that it can be redistributed to farms, cities and the Everglades.

Today, wetlands are recognized as wonderlands, and the Everglades is as popular as motherhood and apple pie. In 2000, President Clinton signed the restoration plan into law with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at his side on the same day the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Bush v. Gore. Florida’s political swamp was tearing the nation apart along partisan lines, but Florida’s actual swamp brought the nation together. “This is a model — not just for our country, but for projects around the world,” Bush said that day.

He was right. The plan to restore the Everglades has become the blueprint for multibillion-dollar efforts across the U.S. and even overseas, such as in Iraq’s Garden of Eden marshes. If successful, the Everglades project could usher in a new era of ecosystem restoration that would provide many lessons on how to avoid the water wars that could dominate the twenty-first century. “The Everglades is a test,” environmentalists say. “If we pass, we may get to keep the planet.”

But it’s not clear that we’ll pass. Scientists at Everglades National Park have attacked the restoration plan as a water-supply boondoggle that won’t revive the ecosystem. Water managers are losing faith in the plan’s newfangled storage technologies. And hurricane experts now believe that several billion dollars’ worth of additional reservoirs will be needed to absorb the region’s floodwaters. But Congress is already skimping on funding, and one Army Corps memo complained that the project is already behind schedule and over budget — and that it isn’t restoration at all. Meanwhile, unregulated sprawl is still whittling away the Everglades; we’re asking the Army Corps to paint a restoration masterpiece, but the canvas is shrinking every day.

The first lesson of the Everglades and the 1928 hurricane is to try to not mess too much with nature in the first place — even aside from the environmental consequences, fixing faulty engineering is not coming cheap. The Army Corps spent $50 million turning the Kissimmee River into a glorified sewer pipe; now it’s spending $800 million to restore one third of the river. Now that humans are getting out of Mother Nature’s way, the river’s health is returning, along with its fish, birds, gators, and 30,000 acres of its wetlands. Which leads to the second lesson: The abuse of nature does not have to be a permanent condition.

The third lesson is that the health of communities — and the lives of their residents — depend on the health of cosystems. The Everglades will be the test of those lessons. It will be a test of our engineering prowess, our scientific knowledge, our planning ability, and our political will. If we can’t pass that test in South Florida — with the world’s most beloved wetland, with an extraordinary commitment across the political spectrum, and with thousands of lives in the balance — it’s hard to see where we can pass.

But if we do pass, we may deserve to keep the planet.

NEXT: THE BLUEPRINT >

[Header = The blueprint]THE BLUEPRINT

Restoring the Everglades to its natural condition would be like trying to unscramble the omelet you ate for breakfast and restore its eggs; millions of Floridians already live in the former Everglades, and millions more are on the way. But the Army Corps of Engineers is leading the effort to restore more natural processes in the Everglades, and the plan is serving as a blueprint for other efforts to revive ecosystems across America and around the world. Here are some of the potential imitators at home.

1. LOUISIANA'S COASTAL WETLANDS are disappearing at a rate of nearly 25 square miles per year. They once provided natural protection to the city of New Orleans during storm surges, but they have been degraded by Army Corps levees and oil-industry canals. The Army Corps has a $14 billion plan to restore these marshes, and the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana has rebranded them as “America’s Wetland,” an homage to the Florida coalition that successfully lobbied for “America’s Everglades.” The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has increased pressure on Congress to fund the plan.

2. CHESAPEAKE BAY has been declining for years, as pollutants from farms, factories and suburbs have ravaged oyster and crab harvests. Billions of dollars in restoration funds have helped, but the estuary is still in trouble. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is leading the fight to save the bay, and advocates warn that the cleanup could require $20 billion in public-private partnerships.

3. THE GREAT LAKES now have a Cabinet-level interagency task force, the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration, assigned with uniting the region’s states around a massive plan to combat environmental problems like invasive species and toxic pollution. Environmentalists have warned that restoring the lakes could cost as much as $20 billion; a bill pending on Capitol Hill would provide $6 billion to start, but so far Congress hasn’t passed it.

4. The SAN FRANCISCO BAY and SACRAMENTO-SAN JOAQUIN RIVER DELTA are now the subject of a restoration and watersupply plan known as CAL-FED, a massive effort to protect drinking water as well as wildlife habitat along a 1,000-squaremile estuary. The final price tag could exceed $15 billion.

5. The environmental problems of the UPPER MISSISSIPPI RIVER hadn’t gotten much attention until 2000, when the Army Corps was caught cooking the books of an economic study to justify a $1 billion navigation project in the area. The Corps was sent back to the drawing board, so now it has proposed a $7.7 billion navigation and environmental restoration project for the river. The navigation part still makes no sense, but the environmental addons could help bring back aquatic and terrestrial habitats that have been degraded by decades of man’s battles with the river.

Story by Michael Grunwald. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2006. This story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2006.