The International Information Center for Structural Engineers

Monday, 06 November 2017 01:00

40 years after Kelly Barnes dam failure

Written by  TheStructuralEngineer.info

On this day in 1977, a small embankment dam located above Toccoa Falls Bible College in Georgia failed, releasing a wall of water that killed 39 people. This dam failure along with several others in the 1970s brought drastic changes in dam safety, such as the establishment of the National Dam Safety Program and many relevant state programs around the country. There are more than 90,000 dams in the US, out of which more than 15,000 are classified as high-hazard-potential structures, meaning that their failure would likely cause loss of life.

On Sunday November 6th 1977, shortly after midnight, due to irregularities and defects in the Kelly Barnes Dam which caused its failure, the campus of Toccoa Falls Bible College was flooded. The steep ravine between the dam and the college funneled the water into a swift and powerful wave, about 25 feet high, catching unaware students, faculty, and staff living on the campus. The flood caused an estimated $2.8 million worth of damage, predominantly confined to college property. The watershed above the dam had received several inches of rain over the few days leading up to the failure and up to an additional 3.5 inches on the night of the failure. But the dam had not been maintained for years and was covered with trees and woody vegetation.

An inspection program that didn’t take place on time

The need for dams’ inspection and maintenance had already been noted since 1972 with the National Dam Inspection Act (PL 92-367), directing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to create an inventory of all non-federal dams meeting certain height-impoundment requirements, to inspect high-hazard-potential dams in the inventory, and to make recommendations for a comprehensive long-term program for inspecting and regulating dams nationwide. However, due to insufficient funds, the inspection program was not carried out. One month after the tragedy in Toccoa Falls Bible College though, President Carter -after securing $15 million- directed the Secretary of the Army to immediately commence the inspection of more than 9,000 non-federal dams that posed a high potential for loss of life and property. This “Phase I” inspection program revealed the unsafe conditions of the vast majority of non-federal dams and ultimately led to more sound dam safety policies on both state and federal levels. “It is of the utmost importance that we continue to remember this tragedy so that failures of this type don’t happen again,” said Jonathan Garton, current president of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO). “Those in the dam safety community memorialize those lost in this tragedy, as well as other people who have lost their lives to dam failures, and are committed to reducing dam failure risks across the country.”

Dam safety today

There are more than 90,000 dams today in the US, more than 15,000 of which are classified as high-hazard-potential structures, that means that their failure would likely cause loss of life, and about 12% of these high-hazard potential dams need repair or upgrade for safety reasons. But despite the existing state dam safety programs, the lack of funding for dam maintenance and rehabilitation remains a limitative factor. According to ASDSO, almost $22 billion are needed for the upgrade or repair of the most critical (high-hazard potential) federal and non-federal dams in the United States.

Source: Civil+Structural Engineer Magazine

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