HARTSVILLE, TN (AP) In the same way Hurricane Katrina inspired emergency planners to better prepare for a potential earthquake affecting West Tennessee, Middle Tennessee officials are planning for the remote possibility of a dam collapse that would inundate cities along the Cumberland River, including Nashville.
The massive 5,736-ft. wide Wolf Creek Dam near Jamestown, KY, holds Lake Cumberland, the ninth-largest reservoir in the United States and the largest east of the Mississippi River.
For the third time since the 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working on a project to stop seepage at the foot of the dam caused by sinkholes in the porous geology of the area. From 1975 to 1979, the Corps built a concrete diaphragm wall to block the water, but seepage problems continue.
“The way we characterize it is that it is a serious problem,” said Mike Zoccola, chief of the Corps’ geotechnical branch. “But, there is no imminent threat of failure. This is not something that has just developed. It is something that has been monitored since the 1960s.”
Now the Corps plans to build another wall at the dam’s base, costing $307 million. The design is expected to be completed later this year, with construction scheduled from 2007 to 2012, The Lebanon Democrat reported.
The Corps is holding public hearings in the next month to discuss both the project’s impact on tourism — building the wall will require some lake drawdowns — and discussing preparedness plans in the very rare event the dam collapsed and sent a torrent of water down the Cumberland River toward cities downstream, including Celina, Carthage, Hartsville, Hendersonville, Nashville and beyond.
“People always talk about the flood where people were in canoes in the courthouse,” Trousdale County Emergency Management Services Director Randall Kirby told the newspaper. “This flood would make that one look weak.
“We want as many people to come to the meeting as possible, which is why we’re having it in the high school auditorium,” Kirby said. “This is important information. The Corps will come in, explain what’s going on and how they propose to fix it. And then the emergency services will take over and go over the evacuation plan.”
The meeting is scheduled for Feb. 16 in the Trousdale County High School auditorium.
Nashville emergency officials considered the idea when they were reviewing emergency plans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it caused when several protective levees failed and flooded most of New Orleans.
“We’re focusing on evacuation and what would cause us to evacuate major portions of our population,” said Richard Byrd, director of the Metropolitan Nashville Emergency Management Agency. “One of the largest impacts on Davidson County would be the hopefully unlikely, but catastrophic, failure of the Wolf Creek Dam.”
The plans focus on creating an evacuation plan that would move people away from the lower-lying center of the Nashville area to higher ground, such Williamson County.
But officials noted that the Corps is not able to give reliable figures on the odds of a catastrophic dam collapse.
“They really didn’t put a number to it,” Byrd said. “It’s like anything else. We have to look at it and say ’what if.’”
Trousdale County already has an evacuation plan, in part inspired by Katrina, Kirby said.
“After New Orleans, they are really taking this seriously,” he said. “All of the emergency services have been working on a plan for evacuation. If this should happen, when we say it’s time to evacuate, people need to evacuate.”