Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Kelly Barnes Dam failure: an event that acted as a catalyst for improvement in dam safety. On November 6, 1977, Toccoa Falls Bible College was nearly swept away as high water erupted through the defects in the Kelly Barnes Dam, sending 25-foot waves through the campus. This tragedy killed 39 people and caused an estimated $2.8 million in damages.
The anniversary of Georgia’s Kelly Barnes Dam failure reminds us to reflect on the history of dam safety. One month after the dam failure, President Carter called for the inspection of over 9,000 dams creating today’s National Inventory of Dams, which now includes over 90,000 dams. While the country’s dam safety programs have come a long way since the 1977 dam failure, it continues to remain a challenge for many states.
The path toward a nationwide dam safety program began 40 years ago and in that time, 49 of 50 states have implemented dam safety programs and the National Inventory of Dams continues to monitor for high-hazard-potential dams, but there is still a great deal of work to be done. For example, the state neighboring this historic failure, Alabama, still has no statewide dam safety program, making it the only state in the country with no such program. Those states that do have dam safety programs continue to face challenges with funding, safety education, and increasing downstream populations. Additionally, while over 90,000 dams are documented in the National Inventory of Dams, over 15,000 of these dams are categorized as high-hazard-potential structures. An estimated 12% of these high-hazard-potential dams need repairs and upgrades for safety reasons.