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County EMA: Expect To Change Readiness Plan Due To High-Risk Dam

Excavation of an embankment at Buckeye Lake for a new house
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Home construction on Buckeye Lake dam have contributed to its weakened state.

Dozens of state and local natural resources and emergency management agencies met Monday to discuss procedures if the high-risk dam at Buckeye Lake breaks. The public will get a chance to have their voices heard Tuesday night during a Fairfield County Commission hearing.

County and state agencies say they soon will begin to conduct outreach programs to familiarize residents with evacuation routes and what they should have ready to go in the event of an imminent threat to Buckeye Lake dam.

“Any failure in this dam is unacceptable.”

Six months on the job, Licking County Emergency Management Agency Director Sean Grady said his office is reviewing existing emergency preparedness plans in light of last week’s federal report which found the Buckeye Lake dam failure rate is high at normal water levels.

“I’m anticipating that there will be some changes in these,” Grady said.

Grady is no stranger to crisis. He was part of the Boston, Massachusetts Mayor’s EMA team. Grady was in Boston at the time of the marathon bombing.

“We had a lot of lessons learned based off of these million dollar drills for public safety agencies, and then when you turn around and do a response for like the bombing, and you see how people react a little bit differently than when you go through the planning process,” he said.

That’s why Grady said outreach now is key.

While Grady said the surrounding roadways should manage 3,000 people during an evacuation, he said it would be a daunting undertaking.

“This area is a tourist destination, and during the Fourth of July they have 60,000 people down in that area. So, yes, it would handle it if it’s managed and maintained. You also have to take into consideration that the moment people have a little bit of adrenaline in their system because a dam siren went off, or someone’s telling them their house might flood, that changes how people react.”

It’s unknown when or what may cause a breach in the dam. Officials say it could be one large rain, or the dam could continue to weaken over weeks and months and then fail.

Exacerbating the threat are gas lines which run through the dam to service the 300 or so homes build on it. A gas leak, Grady said, would be disastrous.

“We’ve all seen videos throughout the country at various times having some sort of catastrophic explosion. That would definitely cause a breach,” Grady said. “Any type of explosive force on that dam is going to cause and probably push us more into that catastrophic scenario that this Army Corps of Engineers report references.”

In the event of an impending threat, dam sirens, which were activated last summer, would sound. And residents would receive reverse calls on landlines and cell phones.

Ohio Department of Natural Resources director James Zehringer said sand bags and emergency equipment are in place. He said officials are considering whether to have someone monitor the four-mile earthen mound all times.

First a reservoir, Buckeye Lake is a result of the Ohio Erie Canal system. Fishing shacks were built on it in the early 1900s. Larger homes continued to be built around, on and into the earthen dam.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called the builds a “very risky construction practice.”

The ODNR owns the dam. When pressed who is responsible for development oversight, ODNR director Zehringer couldn’t say.

“We can sit here and point fingers that this shouldn’t have happened 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago, I have no idea,” he said. “I know we took a serious look at this the last four years, and there probably was some construction being done then that we tried to stop then or question. But, again, we’re moving forward on this.”

WOSU followed up to Zehringer’s answer, “So we don’t know whether there was any specific agency or local group responsible for overseeing it?”

Before Zehringer could respond, an ODNR spokesperson stepped in and said an answer would be supplied at a later date.

The state has yet to announce a solution to the failing dam. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers submitted multiple recommendations, including replacing the dam or draining the lake permanently.