Environmentalists like to say the Everglades is a test; if we pass, we may get to keep the planet. And it is a test – of man's ability to fix his mistakes and repair his abusive relationship with nature. Many Corps engineers came of age after the first Earth Day and understand that South Florida's economic health depends on a healthy Everglades. "We are not your grandfather's Corps of Engineers," Stuart Appelbaum, a manager on the Everglades project, has said. "We want to do the right thing."
The Corps has reinvented its rhetoric, and if it can reinvent its priorities it can help create a sustainable future for places like South Florida and New Orleans. But the Corps has always reflected the desires of Congress, so unless reformers can beat pork purveyors on the Hill, the Corps will have to reform itself. Today that seems about as likely as another Supreme Court justice critiquing water policies in a skin mag.
South Florida, Are You Listening?
Katrina wasn't the big one.
In 1928, a vicious hurricane forced a disastrous volume of Florida's Lake Okeechobee through a flimsy dike, killing 2,500, mostly poor African-Americans trapped in the floodplain. America's first Katrina.
That's when the Army Corps of Engineers got down to business in South Florida. Starting in the '30s, it built the massive Herbert Hoover Dike around the lake, making it possible to grow sugar and raise kids in towns such as Belle Glade and Clewiston. By the 1980's the Corps had completed 2,000 miles of levees and canals, making the area "safe" for roughly 7 million more residents and millions of annual tourists – and eliminating half the Everglades.
Now the dike leaks. Last April an independent engineering report said it poses "a grave and imminent danger to the people and the environment of south Florida," with a one-in-six chance of failure in any given year – an existential roll of the dice for 40,000 residents in its shadow and millions more in the floodplain. "It's a scary situation," says the report's lead author, Les Bromwell.
The Corps initially dismissed the report as "sensationalism." But a new Florida Corps commander, Colonel Paul Grosskruger, has made fixing the dike his top priority, a process that could cost billions. For now, the Corps blasts water out of the lake when it gets high, injuring or killing dolphins, manatees, and oysters in the estuaries that ring the peninsula. And they pray that next hurricane season (which begins in June), the dice will roll their way.