88 Years Ago Today: One of the Worst Engineering Disaster of the Century- it could happen again

Two and a half minutes before midnight on 12 March 1928, the St. Francis Dam failed, sending a surge of water and debris that killed an estimated six hundred people on its journey to finally pour into the Pacific Ocean.

Sadly, the day before, the dam keeper had called the dam’s designer and building, William Mulholland, saying the dam was leaking and he was worried. Mulholland drove up, checked the dam, and assured him it was fine.

The dam keeper, who’d called Mulholland, was among the first to die along with his family. His house was a quarter mile from the dam. When the wall of water hit there, it must have been about 140 feet high. The dam keeper’s body, as well as that of his six-year-old son, was never found. It’s assumed both were washed out into the Pacific.

64 workmen at Powerhouse #2 died when the flood hit. It was now 120 feet high and traveling at 18 miles per hour. It turned into the Santa Clara riverbed and began heading west. 85 men died when a construction camp was swamped when the 55 foot high wall of water hit, crossing where Interstate 5 now runs. The water followed gravity, along where Route 126 runs.

It wasn’t just the water. It was also what the water carried with it: houses, bodies of both people and animals, trees, lumber, parts of bridges; whatever it had torn away.

Finally, after almost five and a half hours, the water reached the Pacific. 54 miles from where the dam had been. Bodies were found in the ocean, washed as far away as Mexico. Many were never found, leaving in doubt the exact number of those killed.

Mulholland was awoken by a phone call, early enough in the disaster, that he was at the dam site by the time the water reached the Pacific. He was a broken man who would never recover.

I cover the six Cascade Events and the entire event in detail in Shit Doesn’t Just Happen: The Gift of Failure II.

FEMA reports: (if you want a list of these dams, click on the link)

The National Dam Safety Program (NDSP), led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is a partnership of states, Federal agencies, and other stakeholders to encourage individual and community responsibility for dam safety. In 2009, more than 1,800 dams were classified as “high hazard dams.” The failure or mis-operation of these dams will likely result in loss of life. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, the cost to repair deficient dams is $50 billion for all dams, or $16 billion to repair only high hazard dams.

We live upstream from the seven dams run by TVA on the TN River. But there are numerous other dams in the area, including a number in the tributaries coming out of the Smoky Mountains.

Here is an excerpt about the danger of dams from my Green Beret Survival Guide:


In your area study, did you find out you live downstream from a dam? There are over 80,000 dams in the United States. About one-third of those pose a danger to life and property if they fail. To see if you are in danger check the National Inventory of Dams or the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

Here is where you can check the NID by state: http://geo.usace.army.mil/pgis/f?p=397:3:0::NO

The Association of State Dam Safety Officials has a lot of information on it: http://www.damsafety.org/

While a dam failure can happen catastrophically, without warning, often there are signs that you can heed. Flooding can cause overtopping or a build up behind the dam that exceeds its capacities.

Dams can also fail for the following reasons:

  • sabotage/terrorism

Make sure you know your evacuation route. Have one for vehicle and one for on foot. Make sure you can do the route in the dark. Disasters rarely conveniently time themselves for us. Note that the St Francis failed just after midnight.

Get out of channels below the dams. Most people killed in a dam emergency are caught by the massive amount of water being channeled downstream.

If you have time before an evacuation prepare your home as noted earlier.

Avoid moving water. Even just half a foot of rushing water can take your feet out from under you. The odds are you won’t drown: you’ll get bashed to death as you are tumbled downstream.

Which brings me to a point where I have to stop and say something, as we’re about to enter into weather and natural made disasters: Don’t be the idiot who stands on that rock along the storm-ravaged coast videotaping it, only to get swept away by the rogue wave.

I know people at the weather channel probably sacrifice small goats to pagan gods as every hurricane barrels toward land, hoping this one will be the big one where they get to stand in their rain parka as signs go flying by, reporting breathlessly. But for the rest of us, avoidance is best. Many people have lost their lives trying to take pictures, trying to get a closer look, proving they can host the best hurricane party in town, etc.

For more information like this, giveaways, etc. please sign up for my newsletter here. Thanks, and for gosh sakes, be careful out there!

Originally published at writeitforward.wordpress.com on March 12, 2016.

West Point grad; Special Ops Vet; NY Times bestseller of over 80 books; for free books and over 200 free downloadable slideshows go to www.bobmayer.com

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