The sight of a wrecked title loan building on Devine Street causes Lois McCarty to shake her head in grief almost every day.
One year ago this week, her husband, Bob, drowned in a flood after a dam on Fort Jackson broke. His body was found just up the creek from the abandoned building. Lois McCarty drives past the battered structure when she leaves her nearby home and heads up Devine Street toward downtown Columbia.
“Every time I go by that building, it tears me apart,” she said. “I can just picture seeing Bob that day. It’s a terrible, terrible reminder.”
Lois McCarty is among more than 100 people who have hired lawyers to sue the federal government over the failure of the Semmes Lake dam, an aging Fort Jackson structure that blew out Oct. 4, 2015.
People seeking compensation say they suffered damage to their homes and property during the storm. More than 16 inches of rain fell on parts of Columbia in 24 hours, which surely would have caused some flooding. But many people contend that the failure of the Semmes Lake dam made matters worse.
The federal government could face millions of dollars in liability over the dam’s failure. One lawsuit alone, filed last spring by Columbia lawyer Pete Strom, seeks $20 million for property damage suffered by residents of the King’s Grant neighborhood just downstream from Semmes Lake.
Strom and Jones Andrews, McCarty’s lawyer, contend the federal government did not properly maintain the earthen structure before it blew out.
Documents obtained by The State under open records laws indicate federal inspectors found problems with the Semmes Lake dam in 2013. The Army has refused to release detailed inspection reports or records that would indicate whether the fort attempted to fix the problems.
Strom and Andrews, also denied access to Army records,have hired experts in an attempt to determine how much water the failed Semmes Lake dam contributed to downstream flooding.
Andrews represents about 50 families who say water from Fort Jackson damaged their property. He said recent discussions with lawyers for the fort indicate the government is ready for the legal battle.
Strom has filed multiple lawsuits and is working on more. He said he has about 130 clients, most of them seeking damages from the federal government over the Semmes Lake dam failure. But he also has about three dozen clients who are suing upstream dam owners in the Gills Creek watershed, he said. Those dams were privately owned and also poorly maintained, he said.
McCarty’s case, however, is different from most because it involves a death. The Army veteran inadvertently drove into the flood after dropping his wife off at the airport the morning of Oct. 4. The Semmes Lake dam failed before dawn that day — and before other dams farther upstream in the Gills Creek watershed gave way, Andrews said. He is preparing a lawsuit against the government over the death.
Since Bob McCarty died, his widow has gone through most of her savings and seen her monthly income drop by more than half, she said. The federal government refused to continue some of the benefits he was receiving, she said.
Officials with Fort Jackson have declined requests for comment, referring questions to the U.S. Department of Justice, which also has declined comment.
Lois McCarty said federal compensation would help her, but she also wants an acknowledgement: She said Fort Jackson officials have never contacted her to express their condolences about her husband’s death.
Bob McCarty was one of nine people who died in the Columbia-area flood that day. Another victim died not far from Devine Street where the 78-year-old McCarty’s body was found.
“I want the federal government to admit that they killed these people,” she said.