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Break at Guntersville Dam gets real bad, real fast.

Guntersville Dam didn’t really break. But in a drill Thursday, TVA and emergency agencies around the county got a taste of what a break might be like.


As much as anything else, the drill showed just how fast things could go downhill. A whole lot of complications came up quickly. The scenario included:

  • Evacuating people in the flood zone below the dam.
  • Rescuing stranded boaters.
  • A series of barge accidents, including a fire and a spill of hazardous cargo.
  • Public water intakes being high and dry, with questions on what people all over the county would do for drinking water.
  • A series of marina fires, related to gasoline lines being pulled loose when floating docks sank due to the receding water level in the lake.
  • Questions over exactly who would be in charge of all the emergency operations needed.
  • Two serious highway accidents, due to people rushing to or from the flood zone, one at the Union Grove Road-Highway 231 intersection and another in Gun-tersville itself.
  • How a great number of casualties from the flood would be treated at local hospitals.
  • Notifying the Red Cross for assistance in setting up shelters for refugees from the flood.
  • A fishing tournament was also underway on the lake and they talked about how they would try to get word to the competitors that the lake was draining. Someone suggested using the drug unit’s helicopter.

About 35 police officers, firefighters, utility managers and others were at the county EMA office in Arab to participate in discussing how each aspect of the disaster would need to be handled.

The drill started with TVA calling the EMA office and informing them that an earthen portion of the dam had suffered a break and complete dam failure was imminent.

“At this point, we would begin our notification process, calling the sheriff’s department, police departments, volunteer firefighters and others to let them know what was going on,” said EMA planner Anita McBurnett.

Those responders would be in charge of evacuating homes and businesses in the area soon to be under water.

Things got complicated after that. The EMA office has a group of amateur radio operators who assist them with communications in times of disaster.

They mobilized, sending crews to each side of the dam to assess the situation. One of the radio operators is also a pilot. He went up in a plane and circled the dam to get “aerial reconnaissance” on the damage.

He also flew immediately below the dam and back towards town to report any problems he could see. His radio transmissions sounded frighteningly real.

He told of seeing a tugboat battling valiantly for control of 4 barges in the raging floodwaters immediately below the dam.

“He has lost control and hit the wall at Painted Bluff at Tennessee river mile 345,” the pilot said. “The barges have broken loose and are drifting down the river. They ap-pear to contain a petroleum product. One is on fire and is sinking.”

When he flew back towards Guntersville, he reported seeing another barge and tug that had run aground a mile below the river bridge due to the dropping water level.

Those barges were leaking some kind of hazardous substance.

“The boats are all grounded at Guntersville Marina, Signal Point Marina and Alred Marina,” the pilot said. “There are 2 fires visible at Alred Marina.”

Chris Hughes of TVA’s Dam Safety division was at the EMA office. He said things like that wouldn’t actually happen quite that fast.

“This is what we call an accelerated simulation,” he said.

Someone asked him if power outages could be expected following a break at Guntersville Dam.

“It wouldn’t happen immediately,” he said. “Guntersville is part of the grid and power would come in from other places to keep things going.”

He acknowledged that the cumulative effects could result in blackouts eventually following a dam break. Other electric plants like the Widows Creek Steam Plant at Stevenson would also go down due to a dam break, since its water intake would be high and dry once the lake went down.

Mr. Hughes said TVA conducts at least 2 simulated dam breaks each year in an effort to prepare both the agency and affected communities of what to do if something like that were to happen.

He said the big group participating at the Marshall County EMA office is the best participation they’ve ever had in such a drill.

Next year, they plan to conduct a drill involving a dam break at Nickajack, directly upstream of Guntersville Lake. A break there would cause more devastation for the town of Guntersville than a break at the dam here.

Ms. McBurnett of EMA said there’s no doubt that a disaster like a dam break here would “expend” the county’s first responders within the first 24 hours.

“We would have to activate the mutual aid agreement we have with the 13 North Alabama counties and get outside help in here,” she said. “We’d also talk to the state EMA about getting help from them.”

Mr. Hughes of TVA said the agency has a strong dam inspection program in place to keep a disaster like that from ever happening. But he said you have to be prepared for the possibility.

“When a dam break occurs, it can happen fast,” he said. “Teton Dam, a huge earthen dam, broke in 1976. It was a complete dam failure in just 4 hours. A lot of people died and it led to the federal dam safety rules we have today." Economic impact associated with loss of tourism, lost industry production, marinas closed, etc., is just beginning to be assessed for the long term,” the summary noted.