May 31, 2005 is National Dam Safety Awareness Day, marking the worst dam disaster in United States history: the South Fork Dam failure above Johnston, Pennsylvania of 1889.
Closer to home in the Pacific Northwest, are the Willow Creek Dam failure which almost destroyed the town of Heppner, Oregon on June 14, 1903 and the June 5, 1976 Teton Dam failure in Idaho. The Teton Dam failure sent more than 20 billion gallons of water spilling down Teton Canyon towards Willford, Teton, Sugar City, Rexburg, Roberts and Idaho Falls, causing more than $2 billion in damages and contributing to the deaths of 11 people.
According to FEMA Regional Director John Pennington, with more than 80,000 dams across the country (9,000 of which have been designated by their state as “high hazard dams”) these calendar observances allow us to pause a moment and reflect on current upstream hazards.
“Time and again, the lesson driven home from devastating disaster is that there is no substitute for pre-disaster mitigation and pre-disaster planning. Dam safety can affect people and property across local, state and even national borders,” said Pennington, whose region includes Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington State. “FEMA doesn’t own or regulate dams, but we can serve as an independent and honest adviser for dam safety. It is critical that people who live downstream are aware of and understand risks associated with dams, and that effective evacuation plans are in place.”
According to Pennington, designating a dam as “high hazard” has less to do with the inherent stability of the dam than with the threat posed to downstream populations in the unlikely event that a given dam does fail, and citizens should check with their local emergency management officials on just what plans are in place. “The focus of this year’s National Dam Safety Awareness Day observance is to empower our citizenry as primary stakeholders in safe dams, and to sustain the public’s interest in becoming active partners in local emergency action plans.”
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