North Carolina has been experiencing severe flooding over the last few days. And now, a structurally compromised dam has caused the evacuation of thousands.
Residents living near Lake Tahoma were ordered to leave by officials after the Lake Tahoma dam failed an inspection by engineers. The National Weather Service said that a flash flood emergency was also in place for McDowell County North Carolina, including the cities of Marion and Old Fort.
Those areas have a combined population of about 8,700 people.
The NWS also said that: “Floodwaters have reached levels not seen since the September 2004 floods associated with Hurricanes Frances and Ivan. Numerous evacuations of residences, businesses, and campgrounds, road closures, water rescues, and landslides are ongoing.”
The Lake Tahoma Dam is reported to be at risk of “imminent failure”, and if it breaks it could flood the surrounding area with thousands of gallons of water. Anyone caught in the flood zone would risk almost certain death, and property damage if the dam collapses is expected to be very significant.
This is just the latest impact from the landfall of Tropical Storm Alberto, the first named storm of this year’s hurricane season. A mudslide has already shut down three lanes of traffic on I-40 overnight, and a tv news anchor and photo-journalist died on Monday in North Carolina, while covering the storm. A tree was uprooted and fell on their SUV.
The latest news, that the Lake Tahoma Dam is in danger of collapse, comes after reports emerged that a landslide had merely set off a sensor warning there. But now, officials report that water has begun to spill around the sides of the Like Tahoma dam, and the latest news says that the dam is in imminent danger of collapse.
While “Dam Collapses” is usually the kind of headline you expect to see above a story about graft and corruption and our crumbling national infrastructure, this story may be more complex. Rainfall for May is already at a record level in North Carolina.
And more rain is expected to come over the next few days. It’s not just the dam itself that’s collapsing, it’s the earth around the dam. Does America have really severe problems with its infrastructure? Yes.
But it’s unlikely that even a well-maintained dam could have withstood this much rain. You never want to build a dam or a bridge or a road to fail, of course. But at some point, if you want to turn a river into a lake and then settle your town near it, you’re going to run into some flooding.
At the same time, this issue does raise some very interesting questions about whose job it is to maintain small rural dams like the one on Lake Tahoma. If you believe in the principles of federalism, you probably think that in a small municipality like this one, it ought to be the responsibility of the locals to maintain their own infrastructure.
But it’s often the case that people want the federal or state government to handle that kind of responsibility, usually with money from taxpayers who’ll never see the benefit of the dam anyway.
Either way, you can make flood prevention and dam-maintenance a priority, or you can put it on the back burner. If this dam really does collapse, we’ll no doubt be hearing plenty about whose fault it was. Until then, we can hope that everyone in the affected area gets out okay.