The Semmes Dam burst in 2015. Today, we still don’t know why
ON OCT. 4, 2015, the water gushed out of Semmes Lake on Fort Jackson, contributing to the devastating flooding that was taking out businesses and homes just downstream and causing two deaths.
In the 19 months since then, information about why the dam failed as the remnants of a hurricane dumped 20 inches of rain on Columbia in a weekend has been dribbling out. You couldn’t even call it a trickle.
And with each new drip of information, it becomes increasingly apparent that the Army hasn’t been withholding the information to protect national security. Rather, the Army has been trying to cover up its own culpability. And not just bureaucratic bumbling, but breathtaking abuse of the public trust.
The State’s Sammy Fretwell reported more than a year ago that a 2013 Army Corps of Engineers inspection report “gave bad grades to virtually every part of the dam that was examined.” But large portions of that report were blocked out, and the Army refused to say what if anything it did to correct the problems.
It became pretty clear last month, when the Army finally handed over an April 29, 2016, briefing memo, that the answer was “nothing.”
Although the Army still won’t respond directly to Mr. Fretwell’s questions, the 2016 report spelled out structural problems dating to 1979 — and documented the Army’s failure to reduce the danger of its recreational lakes. The report even showed actions that increased the danger. As Mr. Fretwell reported, “the fort didn’t heed warnings engineers previously had made about the Semmes Lake dam before the Oct. 4, 2015, flood. (And) when the Army did work on the dam, its efforts increased chances the earthen structure would break.”
The memo is stamped “UNCLASSIFIED/FOUO” across the top and bottom of each page. “FOUO” is Defense Department-speak for “For Official Use Only,” which the department describes as “a document designation, not a classification.” Agencies have the discretion to apply this to information that “although unclassified, may not be appropriate for public release” and “may be exempt from public release under the Freedom of Information Act.”
The “FOUO” designation means it’s possible that federal law did in fact allow the Army to withhold the information. The “UNCLASSIFIED” part puts to the lie the claim that withholding it ever had anything to do with national security — the Army’s original reason for refusing to provide basic information about the dam failures.
The information contained in that unclassified memo was bad enough, revealing that the Army had actually filled in a spillway, rendering it practically useless to do its job of lowering the lake level and thus reducing the chance that the dam would breach. The Army Corps of Engineers had raised alarms about filling in the spillway at least as far back as 2013, but the spillway was never restored, and two years later, the dam did in fact breach.
What we learned next was beyond the pale. Just days after The State’s attorney intervened and Mr. Fretwell started asking questions about that spillway, the Army suddenly agreed to stop trying to cover up records from a $20 million lawsuit that residents of the tony Kings Grant community filed against the Army. And those records show that the concrete was added to the spillway for the purpose of raising the lake level because the commanding general wanted his lakeside yard to “look nicer.”
Let that sink in. A spillway, which is built for the purpose of protecting a dam — and residents downstream — from flooding. This spillway was altered to make it less effective, so that the dam could not withstand the flood. Millions of dollars worth of property was destroyed. Lives were upended.
All that so a general’s yard would “look nicer.”
I had always assumed that the secrecy had more to do with defending against that Kings Grant lawsuit than with national security. But I had assumed that what the Army was hiding was bureaucratic lethargy or incompetence. It never occurred to me that the Army could be concealing a commanding general’s wanton callousness toward human life. Because I’ve always had this naive idea that people who work their way up to the rank of general in the U.S. military care a little bit about something besides their own personal comfort. That they would not knowingly put the property and lives of their neighbors at risk without legitimate reason.
Of course, there are bad people in every profession, so I am going to believe that this was an exception to the rule. Or else that underlings never told the general that prettifying his yard would endanger human lives. If the latter, then perhaps courts-martial should be considered.
Regardless of what the general himself knew, this revelation gives us license to assume that everything else the Army continues to conceal is likewise damning. Unless or until the Army provides documents and answers that prove otherwise.
It’s an important reminder that we should be suspicious when government fights to keep information private. Sometimes the secrecy is justified, but more than rarely, it has nothing to do with the public good. It’s also an important reminder to be thankful that we have the increasingly maligned mainstream media, and reporters such as Mr. Fretwell, who are willing to keep hounding the government to turn over those documents and answer our questions.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.