updated 5/2/2006 7:19:23 PM ET 2006-05-02T23:19:23

The dike keeping the nation’s second-largest lake from overflowing has a high chance of failing in the event of another hurricane and poses “a grave and imminent danger,” according to a state-hired panel of engineering experts.

Gov. Jeb Bush said Tuesday he was worried about the report, which noted that the dike has a one in six chance of being breached in the event of a hurricane.

“It would be devastating to our economy, environment and quality of life,” Bush said in a letter sent Friday to John Paul Woodley Jr., deputy assistant secretary of the Army for civil works.

Messages left for Woodley were not immediately returned Tuesday.

Bush met Tuesday with Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, who was in the state capital for a readiness update on the hurricane season, which begins June 1.

“As I understand it, that presents a different set of evacuation issues than in a normal hurricane,” Chertoff said. “That’s something obviously we want to work very closely with the state on.”

Engineers note urgency
The engineering experts were hired to evaluate the dike’s ability to withstand additional hurricanes after the beating it took from Hurricane Wilma last October, Bush said.

“It needs to be fixed now, and it needs to be fixed right,” the engineers wrote in the 82-page report. “The region’s future depends on it.”

Lake Okeechobee is surrounded by the 143-mile Herbert Hoover dike, which was built in the 1950s in part to prevent another disaster such as the 1928 hurricane, when flooding and storm surge from the lake killed more than 2,000 people.

The 730-square mile lake is the second largest natural freshwater lake within the contiguous United States, behind Lake Michigan.

A failure of the dike would likely result in widespread devastation to the area, resulting in billions of dollars in damage, irreversible harm to the Everglades and a contamination of South Florida’s drinking water supply, the report said.

Bush said he also was pushing for a quick solution to repair the dike and was dispatching his own disaster preparedness chief for an update on the situation.

“FEMA doesn’t need any more breaches, nor does the state of Florida,” Bush said.

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