Swamped

Saving the Glades could mean screwing these guys.

Despite thunderous criticism from Florida newspapers and outcries from Everglades settlers, not much was done to strengthen the dam after the disaster. Towns were rebuilt; more settlers moved in. And in 1928, an even larger hurricane destroyed Boca Raton and then swept over the lake.

This time, more than 21 miles of the dike burst. Entire families drowned together. Only one building was left standing in Belle Glade. And more than 2,500 people died, mostly poor black laborers in low-lying lands.

Nature, yet again, brushed aside man's attempts to tame it. Less hardy settlers would surely have packed up and left.

Rick Persson founded a group to save the canals.
C. Stiles
Rick Persson founded a group to save the canals.
Pahokee Mayor Wayne Whitaker worries about how his town will survive without sugar jobs.
ZumaWireWestPhotos/Newscom.com
Pahokee Mayor Wayne Whitaker worries about how his town will survive without sugar jobs.

Instead, after the bodies were burned in bonfires around Pahokee (the land was still too wet for mass cemeteries), the Army Corps of Engineers built the Hoover Dike. It is 30 feet high and 142 miles long. It has kept Pahokee and her sister cities safe — even during Hurricane Wilma, when Whitaker watched water whip halfway up the side.

But as with most of man's victories over the Everglades, the success has come with a harsh cost. The dike has helped parch the life out of the Glades, damming water from its natural course south from the lake over the thousands of acres covered by sugar cane.

The best thing for the Everglades, many scientists believe, would be to knock down the dike and let the water rip. Whitaker and his 30,000 neighbors, alas, aren't going away. As much as anybody, Whitaker has seen what happens when Pahokee loses sugar jobs — and he's as worried as anyone about what the future of Everglades restoration holds for his people.

"I enjoy living here. For a lot of us, this is home and we'd never leave," Whitaker says, staring out at the dark, shallow water.

That's why so many people in Pahokee panicked when Crist announced his U.S. Sugar deal.

Even though Crist planned to buy 187,000 acres around their town and would have put 1,700 people out of work, no one from Pahokee or any of the surrounding Glades villages was invited to the table — or even warned that negotiations where under way.

Whitaker's counterpart in Belle Glade, Steve Wilson, compared U.S. Sugar to a scorpion stinging the trusting town in the back.

"It's gonna hurt us real bad," Whitaker said at the time.

He still isn't sure where his neighbors will work if not in the sugar industry.

Environmentalists say "tourism" jobs will come with restoration. The executive director of the South Florida Water Management District reassured town residents after the announcement that she had "already approached the Office of Tourism" to talk about the town's plight. Whitaker simply laughs at that idea.

"Let me tell you about tourists," he says, walking back down the dike toward his home. "Tourists want entertainment. There's a lot of bird watchers, I guess, but they're not replacing our agriculture."

For residents of Pahokee, there's always going to be a fundamental rift with Everglades restoration. How could there not be in a town whose survival relies on the dried-out, channeled, dammed system that environmentalists want to undo?

"We have to diversify our economy, there's no doubt," Whitaker says, dropping back down into the wooden rocker on his wide front porch. He waves at a passing car, and then another.

"I think we can have a happy medium. I mean, we need jobs, we have to have agriculture. But we know we need restoration too, to keep our water supply clean."

He gestures at the towering mass of earth rising from his back yard, looming over his house like a billboard for man's victory over the lake.

"But we're sure as heck not going to just abandon Florida and put it back like it was."

----------

South Bay

On a sticky morning last June, in a marshy field near Wellington, Linda Johnson watched Gov. Charlie Crist give a euphoric speech. She had a sick feeling in her stomach. Crist announced to a giddy crowd that the state had agreed to buy 187,000 acres of U.S. Sugar fields for $1.7 billion. The land would go to Everglades restoration. Crist called the deal "as monumental as our nation's first national park."

After the speech, Johnson joined the queue of well-wishers from the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and the Everglades Foundation. When she reached Crist, she grabbed his hand, looked him in the eye, and said, "Governor, I hope you're aware that people still live out there."

That's been Johnson's message to the world since she was elected last year to her hometown's city commission. That's why she agrees to meet me in South Bay, about ten miles south of Pahokee, on U.S. 27.

On the way into South Bay, I pass a sign that says everything you need to know about the town. In front of a muddy field, wedged against a rusty fence near where U.S. 27 hits West Palm Beach Road, a piece of plywood with hand-painted black letters reads, "MUCK for sale."

There isn't much else to offer these days. I drive down a few gravel-lined side streets and can't help but think of the statistics I read that morning. More than a quarter of the town's 4,000 mostly black residents are unemployed. Almost 50 percent of the children here live below the poverty line. Per capita income is only $9,100. I pass two shotgun shacks with plywood over the windows. A young man, maybe in his late 20s, wearing a sleeveless white shirt stares at me from a driveway. He leans on a walker and slowly shuffles back toward a screen door.

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