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EMA officials plan for potential failure of Wolf Creek Dam
Feb 02, 2006 12:00 am
February 1, 2006
Tennessee emergency management officials from Hartsville to Nashville are preparing for what federal authorities say is an unlikely occurrence — the failure of the massive Wolf Creek Dam in Kentucky.
"People always talk about the flood where people were in canoes in the courthouse," Trousdale County Emergency Management Services Director Randall Kirby said. "This flood would make that one look weak."
Wolf Creek Dam, located near Jamestown, Ky., holds Lake Cumberland and is the largest reservoir east of the Mississippi River. More than a mile long, the 5,736-foot dam could hold all of the other lakes in the Ohio River Valley System and still have room for more water.
A current push to stem seepage in the dam is the third effort by the U.S. Corps of Engineers since the 1960s. A short-term solution of grouting the dam between 1968 and 1970 was implemented after an emergency investigation into sinkholes developing near the dam. Between 1975 and 1979, the Corps of Engineers constructed a concrete diaphram wall into the dam's rock foundation to block seepage.
Corps officials are now proposing a modern diaphram wall at a cost of $300 million. Design of the new wall will finish this year with construction scheduled from 2007 to 2012.
Yet, Corps planners and Middle Tennessee emergency management officials are making plans for the unthinkable — that the massive dam could fail.
According to area Emergency Management Agency directors, it would only take 19 hours for Lake Cumberland to flood Hartsville, which sits on the Cumberland River. Flood waters from the potential failure of the Wolf Creek Dam could also reach 5th and 6th Avenue in downtown Nashville as well as the third story of Opryland Hotel.
Metropolitan Nashville Emergency Management Agency Director Richard Byrd said the potential of the Wolf Creek Dam failure came up during his agency's "plan review" sparked by the flooding in the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina in New Orleans.
"We're focusing on evacuation and what would cause us to evacuate major portions of our population," Byrd said. "One of the largest impacts on Davidson County would be the hopefully unlikely but catastrophic failure of the Wolf Creek Dam."
Byrd said projections from the Corps of Engineers have flooding from the potential failure of Wolf Creek Dam causing flooding 30 feet deep and a mile wide of the banks of the Cumberland River in Nashville.
Byrd said his staff was in the process of planning potential evacuations of Nahville for a variety of reasons, including a failure at Wolf Creek. The Wolf Creek scenario involving massive flooding would involve evacuating Nashville residents to outlying counties less affected by the event, including Wilson County.
However, Byrd and other EMA directors said federal officials were not able to put a percentage number to the likelihood of a catastrophic failure of Wolf Creek.
"They really didn't put a number to it," Byrd said. "It's like anything else. We have to look at it and say 'what if.'"
Trousdale County officials have evacuation plans for their county. Kirby also referred to Katrina-related flooding in New Orleans as an impetus for studying the Wolf Creek failure scenario.
"After New Orleans, they are really taking this seriously," he said. "All of the emergency services have been working on a plan for evacuation. If this should happen, when we say it's time to evacuate, people need to evacuate."
Kirby added his county's plan is a generic one that could be used when facing any kind of natural disasters, a similar approach to Nashville's.
"We've attended two of the Corps meetings concerning this issue," he said. "We've been over the plans."
The effects of the potential flood could be devastating to Hartsville. Kirby said as much as three-fourths of the county would be without power for at least two weeks.
"This would knock out city hall, the courthouse and the jail," he said. "People would be without water, power and most of the highways would be shut down. Once the waters rise, it'll take two weeks for it to recede."
Other counties in Middle Tennessee less affected by flood waters are making plans as well, including Wilson County.
Wilson EMA Director Jerry McFarland said it was difficult to really prepare for such a catastrophic event.
"You can't really ever be prepared," McFarland said. "You have to know how to be reactive."
A Corps of Engineers official said they could not say what kind of chance exists that Wolf Creek Dam would fail, saying only there was no "imminent threat."
"The way we characterize it is that it is a serious problem," said Mike Zoccola, chief of the Corps' geotechnical branch. "But, there is no imminent threat of failure. … This is not something that has just developed. It is something that has been monitored since the 1960s."
The Corps of Engineers is hosting a series of public meetings on the potential failure of the Wolf Creek Dam as well as the repair project beginning next month, starting in Trousdale County
"We want as many people to come to the meeting as possible, which is why we're having it in the high school auditorium," Kirby said. "This is important information. The Corps will come in, explain what's going on and how they propose to fix it. And then the emergency services will take over and go over the evacuation plan."
The meeting is 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16, in the Trousdale County High School auditorium.
Hartsville Managing Editor Rebecca Mouser can be reached at 374-3556 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Managing Editor Clint Brewer can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 13 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.