One might wonder how many Georgians recall that fateful night 44 years ago in the upstate as discussions begin on how to spend the $3 billion included for dam improvements and repairs in the $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill passed by Congress. On Nov. 6, 1977, after four to five days of rain, the earthen dam surrounding Kelly Barnes Lake gave way and sent almost 200 million gallons of water jetting into the peaceful campus of Toccoa Falls College.
The dam break occurred around 1:30 a.m. Most on the campus of this private Christian college in the Northeast Georgia city of Toccoa were asleep. It comes as no surprise that many of the 39 deaths attributed to the disaster were students.
It is a tragedy that those awakened to sirens and emergency crews are unlikely to forget. More than 40 were injured, many of them seriously. Some of the survivors are still haunted by the cold floodwaters they barely escaped that dark morning.
The flood caused millions of dollars in property damage. Houses and mobile homes were destroyed, as well as several college buildings, utilities and public infrastructure.
It is the kind of memory that ought to guide state officials when deciding how to spend Georgia’s share of the federal funds designated exclusively for dam upgrades. All too often funds are exhausted before they can be used for the very purpose for which they were intended.
Dave Griffin, manager of Georgia’s Safe Dams Program and president-elect of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, said the funding could be “a good kick-start to some of these upgrades that need to be done to make the dams as safe as possible.”
Maybe, but it will only put a small dent in the sea of deficiencies that exist. There are more than 90,000 dams in the United States, the average age of which is 50 years. Authorities estimated two years ago that it would require as much as $70 billion to improve the integrity of dams in this nation.
Closer to home are the results of a study released by The Associated Press in 2019 that found Georgia to have the highest number of high-hazard dams, dams with the potential of causing a great number of deaths if they fail.
It goes without saying that the federal funding is but a drop in the bucket in meeting Georgia’s needs. The Peach State must do more than rely on federal assistance. Dams that require work should be addressed, and as soon as possible.
Georgia must hold the line at 39 lives, which is 39 too many.