Preparing for a Dam Breach, by A.B.S.

Many of my fellow Tennesseans awoke to headlines the other day that two of the Corp of Engineers dams in our area that are supposed to protect the people from floods and provide water and electricity are in danger of failure. Built more than 50 years ago, the Wolf Creek Dam and the Center Hill Dam overlook several hundred thousand people in central Tennessee, and are leaking significantly. The Wolf Creek Dam has been classified as being at high risk of collapse.

The Wolf Creek Dam is located on the Cumberland River 190 miles up stream from Nashville. The dam has had problems for more than a year and last year, officials determined repairs would need to be made to the dam because of leaks in and around it. The dam holds back 100+ miles of the Cumberland River, near Jamestown in south central Kentucky. Now, the dam is weakening and immediate action is being taken to stop what could be a catastrophic flood. The water level was dropped and more testing was done on the dam. It is the results of those tests that caused officials to put the dam at high risk of failure, though they state failure isn’t considered eminent. A gentleman I know that works for the Corps has stated that large chunks of masonry the size of small cars fall off the dam weekly, so I choose to remain skeptical about the Corps position.

If the Wolf Creek Dam were to break, starting 100+ miles up the Cumberland River in Jamestown, Kentucky, the town of Celina, Tennessee would be flooded first and most likely wiped out completely. Then, water would flow downstream toward Carthage and Old Hickory Lake impacting the towns of Gallatin, Hendersonville, Mt. Juliet and Old Hickory before flooding downtown Nashville’s riverfront area under as much as 30 to 50 feet of water. While Nashville would have some warning, many of the smaller towns mentioned would be impacted so quickly that warnings would be ineffective. The area impacted would be massive.

This has been a wake-up call for many citizens in our area. For many the threat of a major catastrophe was what it took for them to finally learn they need to be prepared for potential emergencies. What was startling for many of our citizens was that these are major impoundments maintained by the Federal government. While this was a wake-up call about the possible threat from major impoundments, most people still are not aware of smaller private and municipal impoundments that potentially pose a threat every day. Many of these small dams have ruptured in the past century leading to death and destruction on a massive scale. Some examples are the Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood of 1889 that killed an estimated 2,300 people, the Baldwin Hills Reservoir in California in 1951, and the privately owned plantation dam that broke near Kilauea, Hawaii in 2006. So what can be done to better protect you and your?

First, make a point to become aware of any and all dams that may pose a threat in your area. Even small farm pond dams can cause significant flash flooding if they breach. Floods, especially flash floods, whether from rain or dam breaches, kill more people each year than hurricanes, tornadoes, wind storms or lightning. About 60% of all flood deaths are people in vehicles that moving water sweeps away. Experts advise you not to drive or wade into flood water at all, especially if you can’t see the bottom. Water over a road, no matter how deep, can hide washed-out pavement. As little as six inches of moving water is enough to float a small car and carry it away.

Always prepare for problems before they happen. When possible build your home on high ground, and if possible never downstream from a dam. During the winter of 1991 a dam on a five acre impoundment ruptured a few miles from my home. Luckily the people a couple of miles downhill were warned and escaped harm, but their homes were washed off their foundations and across US Highway 70, which was a couple of hundred feet away. These homes were on high ground, but someone built a relatively small pond on even higher ground that had a devastating effect.

Get a copy of the 500 and 1,000 year flood zone maps for your area. These will tell you the most likely route the water will take following a catastrophic breach. They will also point out the likely flood areas from heavy rainfall or snow-melt. These are useful tools, but as shown in the previous paragraph, don’t get overconfident. When possible don’t build in these areas. It still amazes me how many people will build in the same location after floods have wiped out their homes on multiple occasions. I know some may not have a choice, but this isn’t always true.

Get a weather radio. If a large dam breaks, warnings will be broadcast through the emergency channels, but don’t count on this when dealing with smaller dams. If a warning comes down that a breach is about to happen, get out. I know many of us including myself don’t really trust the “authorities”, but I think in these cases the wise thing to do is “bug out” and get to a safe location, then assess if it was the proper mode of action later. To do this, plan and scout several potential escape routes. Most people will take the route they are most familiar with, and it always seems to be the same route, which turns the road into a parking lot. Often smaller less well known roads can get you out of the area faster. In my area the local emergency personnel are encouraged to learn the local off road trails in case something happens to the main roads. This would also be advisable for the general public, as this may be the only way out. Set up a meeting place that all the members of your family or circle know about as a rally point. It is also a good idea to designate a family member or friend in another county or state as a contact person. This is so anyone who can’t arrive at the rally point can check in with their status and location. We saw this happening many times after the tsunami in Indonesia as many tourists became separated from their parties. Make sure everyone has the number, email address, or whatever. This information should be memorized in case they become separated from their wallet, date-book, etc.

Sometimes the opportunity to evacuate is lost through hesitation or just bad luck. In these cases one should try to find an area to “evacuate vertically”. In many cases this means sturdy built, tall buildings, towers, or hopefully a mountain or hill. If the water approaches too rapidly, this may simply be a tree. Again, scout around to see what would be available if something were to happen.

If you have to escape a flood or any situation it is a good idea to have a emergency pack with sufficient supplies ready. This may include food and water, first aid gear, medications, a change of clothes, communications gear, fire starting supplies, and in my case a spare set of eye-glasses. I also suggest having a cache of supplies in a secure location, just in case you need them.
Hopefully nothing like this will befall you, but being prepared could mean the difference between life and death should the worst ever happen