When torrential rains drenched South Carolina community associations in October, board members and managers prepared for the worst and rallied to save dams before they breached. The recovery will be long and complicated.
By Pamela Babcock : Reprinted with permission from CAI’s Common Ground TM magazine, March/April 2016
Steven E. Wagner, CMCA, vice president of operations for Southern Community Services, AAMC, and a lakefront homeowner in WildeWood I–IV Homeowners Association near Columbia, S.C., will never forget the early morning emergency texts that warned residents about the potential for flooding after a days-long deluge in the Palmetto state in early October.
The community’s three dams were showing signs of damage but hadn’t ruptured. Then came a frantic message from a landscape architect who had a commercial building downstream: “STEVE: YOU NEED TO GO TO BEAVER DAM ASAP. IT’S ABOUT TO BREACH.”
Wagner jumped into his Chevy Tahoe and raced to the dam. He found a sinkhole caused by erosion that had grown from the size of a small car to about 35 feet wide and 15 feet deep. Before long, CNN was on site and helicopters buzzed overhead.
“We’d never experienced anything like this,” Wagner recalls. “They were calling this the 1,000-year storm.”
About 20 inches of rain were dumped on the state over a few days, causing unprecedented flooding and a series of dam breaches that damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes and resulted in more than a dozen deaths.
According to the South Carolina Department of Health & Environmental Control (DHEC), a total of 32 dams failed during the historic event. Columbia and areas northeast of the state capital experienced the worst damage. Five dams breached in the Gills Creek Watershed, a network of about 100 manmade lakes and 70 miles of streams in the Columbia area. Three of those breaks were in community associations: Cary Lake, Upper Rockyford Lake and Lower Rockyford Lake. The dams on Semmes Lake at Fort Jackson, a U.S. Army base, and Pinewood Lake, which is privately owned, also failed in the watershed.
WildeWood, a community of about 950 single-family homes, got off relatively easy compared to others. About 10 homes had minor basement flooding, and a section of a major road into the community was washed out.
Though none of WildeWood’s dams collapsed, water was flowing over them. Beaver Dam was most at risk of failure and may have breached if homeowners on the lake hadn’t pitched in to save it.
Jim Lehman, an attorney for Nelson Mullins law firm and a board member of Beaver Dam Lake Homeowners Association in WildeWood, and other board members of the 30-home association decided to do whatever they could to keep the dam intact.
In the middle of the storm, Lehman paddled his kayak onto the lake to try to remove debris so water levels would continue to lower.
“We were struggling to keep the dam from failing. It was very precarious and had the prospect of causing damage to people living in homes downstream,” he says.
When the sinkhole emerged, he and other board members, homeowners and a local landscaper feverishly began sandbagging. Community association leaders also contacted state and local officials. A team that included representatives from DHEC, South Carolina Electric & Gas (SCE&G), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and others spent 48 hours erecting a massive 60-foot high temporary metal coffer stabilized with rock to keep the rushing water from damaging the dam.
Meanwhile, Wagner and others worked to get food donations from area pizza and sandwich shops to help feed the folks working on the dam.
“It was pretty neat how the community chipped in and how brave everyone was during all of this,” he says.
Wagner says communication with WildeWood residents was key throughout the storm, particularly since information on the local news and that coming from state officials wasn’t always accurate. Southern Community Services keeps updated e-mail and text contacts for residents and was able to push the latest updates directly from the community.
READY FOR THE RAINS
As the severe rains fell, community association leaders around the state prepared for the worst.
Harbison Community Association, which is north of downtown Columbia and includes more than 2,300-single family homes, 13 large apartment complexes and about 200 businesses, was one of many that responded to emergency alerts to lower their dam levels. The community was relatively unscathed and its two dams held up fine, says Executive Director Dave Grove.
The association, founded in 1974, has two large lakes that are about 40 years old and have earthen dams that are just over 20 feet high. They’re considered “high hazard” dams because of the amount of water that backs up.
DHEC inspects the dams each year, but the association relies on its own emergency action plan to ensure it’s up to date with all federal and state regulations. The emergency plans, which were just updated this past June, outline a series of steps to take in the event of potential failures as well as detailed protocols for notifying residents who live downstream in other communities.
Thankfully, Harbison didn’t have to follow its emergency notification protocols.
“We have two lakes that could be a huge liability,” Grove says. “Both lakes are surrounded by various subdivisions. And if they ever failed, it would be a huge problem.”
Elsewhere, DeBordieu Colony Community Association, a 2,700-acre oceanfront golf community in Georgetown, also fared pretty well. Minor damage and flooded roads made travel difficult for several days, and about 20 of the community’s 853 mostly single-family homes received just over a foot of water in their basements.
Despite the association’s efforts to sandbag Luvan Boulevard, one of its main roads, the bank was partially washed out. According to Blanche Brown, CMCA, AMS, general manager, the association will pay about $35,000 to repair the road.
There was significant beach erosion too, but Brown is convinced it would’ve been worse if the association hadn’t completed a $10 million beach restoration project this past April. Homeowners living on the mile-and-a-half stretch of sand footed the hefty bill.
Hilton Head Island Plantation Property Owners Association was largely spared the brunt of the storm too, but it prepared “like we were going to be at the center of the bull’s-eye,” says T. Peter Kristian, CMCA, LSM, PCAM, general manager and a CAI past president.
The community lowered about 90 lagoons to provide more room for storm-water and checked and cleaned ditches so water could run freely to drains and holding areas before getting channeled to open waters. Association vehicle fuel tanks were topped off, and residents were advised to stock up on food, essential medications and to stay off the roads.
Unfortunately, the association couldn’t do anything to prevent storm and wind-driven high tides from wiping out all the sand on Pine Island Beach, a mile-long amenity. The community has recently replaced sand there twice at a cost of $20,000 each time.
“It’s extremely frustrating, but if it breaches, it makes that area into a total island,” Kristian notes.
The association recently contacted the Town of Hilton Head to see if it could be part of the town’s beach renourishment program and get funding or support.
THE LONG RECOVERY
Today, many of the communities with the worst damage are struggling to get back on their feet and trying to figure out how to pay for repairs.
In WildeWood, the master association’s dams are owned and operated by each lakefront property owners subassociation. Wagner says preliminary estimates to repair the dam he lives on, WildeWood Dam IV, are $52,000, which isn’t too much compared to other dams in the state.
Representatives at a number of community associations where dams failed didn’t respond to requests to be interviewed for this story. Erich Miarka, program coordinator of the Gills Creek Watershed Association, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring and protecting waterways, says he’s heard estimates that rebuilding the Cary Lake Homeowner’s Association dam and replacing the road that used to be on top of it will cost more than $2 million.
“There are homeowners on the other side of the dam who don’t have public access to their homes right now. They’re having to get in and out of their properties by driving through someone’s backyard,” says Miarka.
Unfortunately, associations with privately owned and operated dams will be footing repair bills themselves. The county, state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency won’t pay to help.
“Individuals are going to have to pay for this, thus, it’s going to prolong the repairs for a very long time,” says Wagner. “In some cases, the damage is so significant, communities will need to seek financial assistance to complete the repairs. It’s a huge financial issue.”
Legislation pending in the statehouse would call for the state or counties to lend money to homeowners for dam repairs and then recoup the debt through tax bills over an extended period of time, such as a 15-year period.
Many community associations and their homeowners also are in a holding pattern as the state finalizes the rebuilding permitting process.
South Carolina officials have doubled DHEC’s budget for the next fiscal year, and the agency has announced that it will bring its dam safety program in line with national best practices.
Miarka says the state’s dam and reservoir program has been underfunded and understaffed for years.
“I think we ranked 47 in the nation in how much we spent on our dam and reservoir safety program. It’s been paltry,” he says. “There definitely weren’t enough inspections going on, and I think that probably the standards needed to be increased.”
Among other things, DHEC has proposed adding seven full-time staffers who will work to assess the dam safety program and announced plans to conduct a complete engineering review and assessment of the Gills Creek Watershed.
Miarka believes dams need to be rebuilt with stronger materials, particularly because the region’s sandy soil makes erosion likely. He thinks they also should have larger emergency spillways.
“In all of the dam failures that we saw in this flood event, the emergency spillways weren’t large enough to handle this size storm and were overwhelmed,” he says.
The recovery is likely to be slowed too by the lawsuits that are unfolding. Some dam owners and operators (including community associations), insurance companies, SCE&G and others are being sued for negligence.
“There’s litigation accumulating, and that’s when it gets ugly,” Wagner says.
Miarka isn’t sure how many lawsuits have been filed but says that in the watershed he’s heard of associations suing other associations and association residents suing nearby dam owners.
Several dozen residents of King’s Grant Home Owners Association are suing Fort Jackson for damages they suffered after the dam on Semmes Lake failed. Joseph Preston “Pete” Strom Jr., a Columbia attorney representing the residents, didn’t respond to a request to be interviewed for this story, but according to his firm’s website, he’s filed a notice of claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The government has six months to respond. It may accept liability or require the firm to file suit.
Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer in the New York City area.
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