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Ex-Fort Jackson commander linked to 2015 dam failure that swamped Columbia

A one-time commanding general at Fort Jackson, who wanted his lakeside yard to look more attractive, is blamed for construction that contributed to the failure of the Semmes Lake dam during a deadly 2015 flood in Columbia, federal court records show.

Records released Wednesday show the as-yet-unnamed base commander favored raising the level of Semmes Lake by having concrete installed to limit the flow of water in an emergency spillway.

After the concrete was installed to raise lake levels, the spillway's capacity to release water if a major storm or flood hit was limited, according to the government documents. Spillways are channels that let water flow out of lakes when levels get too high.

The almost 1,000-foot-long Semmes Lake dam broke about 5:34 a.m. on Oct. 4, 2015, according to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study on the cause of that dam failure. The Corps of Engineers' report said Fort Jackson did not properly maintain the earthen 1940s-era dam before the 2015 storm..

"Semmes Lake dam was not managed in accordance with Army regulations for dams for hydrologic adequacy,'' the August 2016 technical investigation report says.

Fort Jackson officials have said little about the dam's failure despite withering criticism and lawsuits by downstream property owners.

The federal government had, until Wednesday afternoon, refused to release hundreds of pages of documents from a lawsuit that could better explain what happened. The State newspaper had filed a motion in court to release the records. The records were released, after the government agreed to let them become public, through the office of attorney Pete Strom, who is suing the federal government on behalf of property owners.

One document released Wednesday, called “Material Facts Not in Dispute,’’ says the 29-acre Semmes Lake was a recreational reservoir that featured boat rentals at Fort Jackson. The lake ran along a string of homes that some base officials live in.

Among the court documents released Wednesday was a deposition of Matt Shealy, an employee with Fort Jackson's department of public works. Shealy's sworn deposition suggests a Fort Jackson commanding general played a role in the dam's failure.

Shealy said the Army training base's commanding general thought higher lake levels would make the yard of his house "look nicer.'' Other reports show concrete was put in the spillway, raising the lake's level but reducing the capacity of its spillway to release water in an emergency.

"The commanding general at the time wanted the level of the lake increased,'' Shealy said in his September 2017 deposition.

Shealy did not name the commanding general, and lawyers for property owners suing the government said they also did not have the commander's name. Work on the dam occurred about 10 to 12 years ago, the documents show.

Shealy's revelations are of keen interest to residents who live below the now-crumbled Semmes Lake dam, as well as the families of other people who encountered the rising flood that morning in southeast Columbia.

Property owners in the King's Grant neighborhood say they suffered up to $20 million in damage when Semmes Lake dam failed, flooding their subdivision along Wildcat Creek. Two people below the dam died in the lower Devine Street area after the dam burst. However, that area also was flooded by water pouring in from raging creeks and other broken dams.

Since the storm, many residents have asked why the Semmes Lake dam failed, whether the fort did enough to keep it stable, and who was responsible for the dam's failure.

Strom, a former U.S. attorney representing residents of the King's Grant neighborhood, said Shealy's deposition provides chilling evidence that Fort Jackson officials were derelict in their duty to maintain the dam.

"What this proves is the commanding general was more concerned about the water level being high enough in his backyard than he was about his neighbors,'' Strom said. "By putting that (concrete) curb in there, it changed the volume of the lake by approximately 25 percent, and I think (that) was material to the amount of damage that was done to the homeowners at King's Grant and downstream.''

Records show water began to pour over the dam about 4:17 a.m. Oct. 4, 2015. That "overtopping" began to erode the structure before it blew out just more than an hour later, records show.. Property owners in King's Grant began to complain of rising water in their yards and homes before dawn that morning.

In addition to limited spillway capacity, the August 2016 Corps report said, rusted and broken equipment did not allow Fort Jackson to lower lake levels before the storm hit, which could have kept the dam intact.