After 18 years, a $1.5 billion project to repair the levee around FloridaLake Okeechobee, which protects thousands of people from potentially catastrophic flooding during hurricanes.

The Herbert Hoover Dike project, overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was completed three years ahead of schedule and saved $300 million over original cost estimates, officials said at a lakefront ribbon-cutting ceremony in Clewiston.

“The Herbert Hoover Dike has never been in better shape than it is now,” said Col. James Booth, commander of the Corps of Engineers. Jacksonville district. “This is great news for lakeside communities.”

The restoration project, which began in 2005, included work along the 143-mile (230-kilometer) levee surrounding the huge lake. The dam was originally started after hurricanes in the 1920s caused the lake to flood, killing thousands in sugar-growing regions including Clewiston, South Bay, Pahokee and Belle Glade. It was eventually enlarged to encompass all 730 square miles (1,900 square kilometers).

The 1928 hurricane, which flooded Lake Okeechobee up to 20 feet (6 meters) deep in some towns, is estimated to have killed at least 2,500 people — most of them black farm workers. This storm and its impact on the poor was immortalized in the Zora Neale HurstonThe classic 1937 book Their Eyes Were Upon God.

By the late 1990s, however, engineers discovered that the natural sand, stone and limestone levee, which had been rebuilt in the 1950s, was weakening and could fail during storms. That, in turn, forced managers who control lake levels to move more water to Florida’s east and west coasts to reduce the risk of flooding.

Completing the levee improvements will keep the lake level higher, reducing the need for discharges that can carry harmful nutrients to the coast and improving the quality of water moving south into the Everglades, the vast wetlands that are also at the center of the multibillion-dollar said Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eichenberg.

“The future is bright for us AmericaThe Everglades and Lake Okeechobee have a bright future,” Eichenberg said.

Everything about the dam project is massive. More than 7.8 million man-hours from 42 contractors went to work. About 90,000 cubic yards (69,000 cubic meters) of concrete was poured. 28 water control structures were replaced. Nine pumping stations and nine navigational locks are now in place.

For people who live near the lake, the project means less worry about the levee failing during a storm, said Clewiston Mayor James Pittman.

“This is nothing short of a miracle. Now the cities around the lake can live confidently and safely,” he said.

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