Across North Carolina officials are worried about potential dam failures as floodwaters from Hurricane Florence continue to rise. According to data from the National Inventory of Dams earlier this year, North Carolina already had 1,445 dams rated as high hazards out of 5,700 dams total before Hurricane Florence made landfall in early September.
The high hazard classification indicates that any failure in the dams is likely to cause the loss of one or more human lives. Out of those hazardous dams, 185 had poor or unsatisfactory conditions as rated during recent inspections. This survey of dams included large, federally-owned ones as well as small, private ones. Many are in areas that are now inundated with water.
The last decade has seen over a third of all the dam failures or near-failures that have happened since 1874. These failures often occur because the dams are old and not well-maintained. Prior to Hurricane Florence making landfall, workers at North Carolina’s Dam Safety Program identified vulnerable structures and contacted the dam owners and operators to take the proper safety measures.
Officials in North Carolina at both the local and state level have been closely monitoring dam safety. According to these officials, there have been at least two breaches so far, but they have not caused major issues. There have been several false alarms about dam failures and other locations of concern that have caused panic in local residents.
On Sept. 17, a failure at an unregulated dam in Anson County caused the evacuation of about 12 homes. However, by the next day the water had receded and officials allowed residents to return to their homes. An unsubstantiated claim of dam failure in Hope Mills was posted on Facebook the day before, creating a panic in residents of the area. Concerned families started calling officials to find out which way the water would be flooding, but it turned out the dam held up just fine.
Similar panic and then quick relief happened in South Carolina as well after Hurricane Florence dumped tons of water in areas. Sherrif’s deputies in Chesterfield Country went door-to-door to homes located below the dam, telling residents that the dam was in danger of failing. However, by the next morning, the waters of Lake Juniper had receded, easing concerns for residents like Nancy Coleman. She was ready to leave at a moment’s notice with her elderly mother if an evacuation notice went out.
“We slept in our clothes and were ready,” Coleman said.