Eight months ago, communities were devastated by flooding that now stands as the second most costly environmental disaster in the state’s history. Only Hurricane Hugo in 1989, when adjusted for inflation, exceeded the $12 billion cost of the October floods. Nineteen people died, 160,000 homes were damaged, and hundreds of roads and bridges were closed, many impacted by failing dams.
More than 40 dams regulated by South Carolina’s dam-safety program failed; several were known to be in need of repair even before the rains began. Hundreds of smaller, unregulated dams also failed.
FEMA rates our dam-safety program as the nation‘s second worst, and while next year’s state budget increases funding for the program, nothing has been done to improve the law and regulations that govern the state’s ability to ensure public safety. A bill introduced by House Speaker Jay Lucas in January (H.4565) would have made many of the needed improvements, but it died in subcommittee after attempts to substantially weaken it.
With catastrophic floods becoming all too frequent in the Southeast — Nashville, Houston, Atlanta, Charleston and Columbia all have had disastrous floods in the past decade — we need to do more to prepare for floods. The commonsense approach is to fix the state’s weak dam-safety law by:
▪ Making it the responsibility of dam owners to inspect and maintain their dams.
▪ Requiring more frequent inspections of hazardous dams.
▪ Increasing penalties for unsafe dams and violations.
▪ Requiring dam owners to ensure that funds are available to repair or remove dams in the event that they can’t or won’t meet safety standards.
Our lawmakers need to work this summer and fall and prepare legislation for 2017 that will lift the state from the bottom of the nation’s dam-safety programs, and ensure that we are doing the best we can to protect our citizens from floods and failing dams.