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NY waits word on dam break

Several families in Fort Ann, N.Y., are still waiting to find out what caused a dam breach.

BY SUSAN KIM | FORT ANN, N.Y. | August 23, 2005

Several families in Fort Ann, N.Y., are still waiting to find out what caused the dam breach that flooded their homes - and where they can turn for help.

Following a breach at the Hadlock Dam on July 2, three or four homes were destroyed, and a total of seven homes had major damage, said Dennis Michalski, public information officer for the New York State Emergency Management Office.

The breach unleashed hundreds of thousands of gallons of water, and it's a credit to local and state responders that nobody was injured, said Michalski.

"We were up there within an hour of the breach of the dam," he said. "We immediately put in place an incident management assistance team."

State officials supported town and county officials in their successful efforts to get people out of harmís way and conduct an immediate response, said Michalski.

But now the affected families are waiting for aid. On July 22, the state requested a federal declaration for damage resulting from a weather pattern that hung over the state from June 6 to July 16, Michalski said. "We haven't heard back from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). We understand it's still under review."

The state requested public assistance for 12 counties and individual assistance for five counties. Federal aid could potentially help families affected by the dam breach.

For now, the families - most of them without flood insurance - are in a difficult situation.

The Hadlock Dam is owned by the the town of Fort Ann. Last year, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) requested that the town proceed expeditiously with concerns relating to the safety of the dam, said DEC spokesperson Maureen Wren. "In July 2004, the DEC entered into a consent order with the town that required a formal schedule of construction," she said. "In late 2004-2005, we performed several site visits."

The last site inspection was in April 2005, and no violations were found, said Wren.

Repairs on the dam proceeded, and the cause of the breach remains unknown. "We're investigating what the cause of the dam breach was," said Wren, "through our consultants. We hope to have results in a few weeks, hopefully late August, or very early September."

Like Michalski, Wren credited local responders for immediate efforts that likely saved lives. "An emergency response plan was implemented, and it was followed. We are very grateful. The DEC did assist, but the local fire department and other local responders really deserve so much credit."

But it's not the DEC's role to provide aid money to affected families, said Wren.

For now, flood-affected families are relying mainly on fundraisers sponsored by the West Fort Ann Fire Department, along with other businesses and community groups. With back-to-school expenses and winter heating bills upon them, at least some of the affected families are financially strapped. By mid-August, the fire department had raised more than $40,000.

Town-owned dams - as well as dams owned by homeowners associations - are fairly common in the U.S., explained Sarah Mayfield, spokesperson for the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. "Some individuals do own dams, if a dam happens to be on their property," she said.

If a dam meets certain size or hazard requirements, it is subject to state inspections, and these requirements vary on a state-by-state basis, Mayfield said. When it comes to repairing a dam, the dam owner is usually liable for those expenses, she said. "And that's pretty hard. Just yesterday I came across a story about 25 homeowners that may be completely responsible for over a half a million dollars in dam repairs. Unless the community agrees to pitch in, the property owners will likely face hefty long-term assessments on their property taxes, or maybe a drained lake and huge decreases in property values. It's not an uncommon situation."

In a perfect world, dam owners would be able to provide 24-hour monitoring, but that simply isnít affordable or practical for many of them. Usually dam owners work in conjunction with federal officials and with state inspectors.

In the case of Fort Ann, some town officials estimate it could take anywhere from 18 months to three years to sort out the legal questions.

When it comes to who's liable for dam breaches, the decisions can be painstakingly long, especially if you're a homeowner waiting for damages to be awarded, acknowledged Mayfield. "Like any litigation, it can drag on for years. I don't know what's typical, but the case over a 1986 levee break in California was just settled this year."

Since 1998, the number of unsafe dams has risen by 33 percent to more than 3,500, according to both the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. While federally owned dams are in good condition, and there have been modest gains in repair, the number of dams identified as unsafe is increasing at a faster rate than those being repaired. About $10.1 billion is needed over the next 12 years to address all critical non-federal dams--dams which pose a direct risk to human life should they fail, estimated experts.

Historically, some of the largest disasters in the United States have resulted from dam failures. In 1889, 2,209 lives were lost when the South Fork Dam failed above Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

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