On This Day

Barnes Lake Dam, kelly Barnes Lake, toccoa falls, toccoa flood
Vernon B. Sauer/Federal Investigative Board
Aerial view of Kelly Barnes Lake area, looking downstream after flood. Washed out dam is near shadow area near upper edge of picture.

On This Day: Barnes Lake Dam Bursts in Toccoa Falls, Ga.

November 06, 2010 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Nov. 6, 1977, after a week of heavy rain, the Barnes Lake Dam in Toccoa Falls ruptured and unleashed a flood of water that killed 38 people and left a small college town destroyed.

Dam Breach Devastates Trailer Park, College

At approximately 1:30 a.m. on Nov. 6, 1977, the Barnes Lake Dam collapsed. In the ensuing chaos, a 30-foot wall of water crashed down on the small university town of Toccoa Falls.

The massive flood uprooted mobile homes, lifted automobiles and crashed through dormitory windows at Toccoa Falls Bible College. Eleven houses and 25 mobile homes were destroyed in the flood as it ravaged the Toccoa Falls College community, leaving 38 dead. 

The collapse came after a weekend of heavy rain raised the water level of the 50-acre Barnes Lake up five inches. The high water level overwhelmed the aging support of the dam, which was originally built in 1899, and was expanded in 1937. Toccoa Falls College used the 41-foot-high dam as its source of power.
The Federal Investigative Board launched an investigation into the collapse and did not find a single cause for the disaster. It concluded, “The most probable causes are a local slide on the steep downstream slope probably associated with piping, an attendant localized breach in the crest followed by progressive erosion, saturation of the downstream embankment, and subsequently a total collapse of the structure.”

Background: National Dam Inspection Act

The Toccoa Falls tragedy was an example of a greater overall problem characteristic of dams in the 1970s. In 1972, Congress passed the National Dam Inspection Act, but a lack of federal funding resulted in little done to help a worsening situation.

The Dam Inspection Act created an inventory of America’s 49,000 dams and concluded that approximately “20,000 could be significantly or highly hazardous to populations downstream,” according to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Ordering a proper inspection for these dams would cost $367 million, but the 1972 act allowed only $15 million. The disaster at Toccoa Falls that claimed 38 lives came only a year after a massive dam failure at Idaho’s Teton Dam killed 11 people and did $400 million in damage.

On March 15, 1977, months before the Toccoa Falls accident, the GAO report criticized the implementation of the National Dam Inspection Act: “To date, the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) has made no actual inspections of dams pursuant to the National Dam Inspection Act of 1972 … The estimated cost of the Corps program would be about seven times the amount currently spent for dam safety across the country. Sizeable costs would also be involved in remedial actions and assistance after dam failures.”

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