Oktibbeha Lake dam holds overnight; Authorities warn breach still 'imminent'

 

Bell Schoolhouse volunteer firefighter Walker Harris, far left, county road foreman Mark Vaughn, road operator Doug Clark and retired maintenance worker Robert Howell work on the pipes carrying water from the Oktibbeha County Lake Dam to the emergency spillway Tuesday afternoon. The county issued a warning to area residents the dam was in

Bell Schoolhouse volunteer firefighter Walker Harris, far left, county road foreman Mark Vaughn, road operator Doug Clark and retired maintenance worker Robert Howell work on the pipes carrying water from the Oktibbeha County Lake Dam to the emergency spillway Tuesday afternoon. The county issued a warning to area residents the dam was in "imminent" danger of breaching and flooding the land to the east of County Lake Road, which includes the bridge on the levee. Photo by: Tess Vrbin/Dispatch Staff

 

Before an abundance of rainfall the past few days this side of the levee was intact and an even slope. After the recent rainfall, there has been reported around 200 yards of mud that eroded off the side of the levee.

Before an abundance of rainfall the past few days this side of the levee was intact and an even slope. After the recent rainfall, there has been reported around 200 yards of mud that eroded off the side of the levee.
Photo by: Austin Frayser/Special to The Dispatch

 

A portion of the levee at the Oktibbeha County Lake is close to breaching and flooding 17,500 acres of nearby land, which would force about 250 people to evacuate at least 130 households in Clay and Oktibbeha counties. Two inspections Tuesday morning showed that water was seeping between the dam and the bedrock underneath it, pushing sand boils to the surface and forming a crack on the slope.

A portion of the levee at the Oktibbeha County Lake is close to breaching and flooding 17,500 acres of nearby land, which would force about 250 people to evacuate at least 130 households in Clay and Oktibbeha counties. Two inspections Tuesday morning showed that water was seeping between the dam and the bedrock underneath it, pushing sand boils to the surface and forming a crack on the slope.
Photo by: Courtesy photo/MEMA

 

Jimmy Robinson, a resident of the Oktibbeha County Lake area, works on the pipes pumping water into the spillway from the lake. These pipes were not working until he started maintenance on them early Tuesday morning and has worked for hours to get all four pipes to relieve the lake of an overflow of water.

Jimmy Robinson, a resident of the Oktibbeha County Lake area, works on the pipes pumping water into the spillway from the lake. These pipes were not working until he started maintenance on them early Tuesday morning and has worked for hours to get all four pipes to relieve the lake of an overflow of water.
Photo by: Austin Frayser/Special to The Dispatch

 

The spillway from the Oktibbeha County lake surges with an overflow of water after immense rain from the past days.

The spillway from the Oktibbeha County lake surges with an overflow of water after immense rain from the past days.
Photo by: Austin Frayser/Special to The Dispatch

 

A group of pipes are used to deliver the overflow of the lake to the spillway at a farther spot down the levee from the mud slide.

A group of pipes are used to deliver the overflow of the lake to the spillway at a farther spot down the levee from the mud slide.
Photo by: Austin Frayser/Special to The Dispatch

 

Chad Williams, left, and his father, Ronald, live on family land on Walter Bell Road northeast of the Oktibbeha County Lake Dam. They said they were not concerned about the warning that the levee might breach since the water level regularly rises and falls, but they have property in Pheba where they can stay in the case of a mandatory evacuation, Ronald Williams said.

Chad Williams, left, and his father, Ronald, live on family land on Walter Bell Road northeast of the Oktibbeha County Lake Dam. They said they were not concerned about the warning that the levee might breach since the water level regularly rises and falls, but they have property in Pheba where they can stay in the case of a mandatory evacuation, Ronald Williams said.
Photo by: Tess Vrbin/Dispatch Staff

 

Clyde Pritchard

Clyde Pritchard

 

Kristen Campanella

Kristen Campanella

 

Marvell Howard

Marvell Howard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tess Vrbin/Dispatch Staff

 

 

Terra Robinson left Henderson Ward Stewart Elementary School, where she is a teacher, as soon as she heard that the Oktibbeha County Lake Dam could flood her and her family's homes at any moment.

 

"I had to stop my lessons and see what I needed to do, if I needed to pack my things," Robinson said. "I'm trying to pack up all my family members' pictures."

 

Recent storms have put the levee at the Oktibbeha County Lake dam in "imminent" danger of breaching and flooding 17,500 acres of nearby land, which would force about 250 people to evacuate at least 130 households, from area immediately around the lake northwest of Starkville all the way to parts of southwest Clay County.

 

 

The county Emergency Management Agency and board of supervisors issued a warning in a press release Tuesday morning, encouraging area residents to evacuate to higher ground.

 

County Engineer Clyde Pritchard told county officials, law enforcement and reporters at a Tuesday afternoon briefing that the water in the lake rose nine feet in three days, enough that the dam is showing early signs of breaching, and the county currently does not have a way to control the water level. Since then, the water level has risen another foot and "heavy pressure" remains on the dam, according to an inspection report this morning.

 

"I'm not in the business of crying wolf," Pritchard said. "This is not a drill."

 

Pritchard examines the levee after every storm that comes through the area, and two inspections Tuesday morning showed that water was seeping between the dam and the bedrock underneath it, pushing sand boils to the surface and forming a crack on the slope. The problem had worsened by the second inspection, prompting the warning from EMA.

 

The warning will upgrade to an emergency and the recommendation to evacuate will become a mandate if water starts streaming out of the levee, EMA Director Kristen Campanella said.

 

Two more inspections in the afternoon showed no change, and District 3 Supervisor Marvell Howard said the public could "rest easy" at a second briefing Tuesday evening. Oktibbeha County Sheriff's Office deputies and road department workers monitored the dam throughout the night, and OCSO and county fire departments were ready to drive through the area with their lights and sirens on to alert residents if the dam broke overnight.

 

Howard said it would likely take two to three hours to completely evacuate the inundation area. His home just behind the levee would be one of the first to experience flooding from a breach.

 

Robinson's family has lived in the area for decades, and she remembers swimming in the lake as a child. Three of her siblings and their children live nearby, so the family has "a lot to lose" if the area floods, she said.

 

While Robinson was rushing home from work, her niece, Talekia Wordlaw, drove from her own workplace in Aliceville, Alabama, to pick up her daughter at West Elementary School in Sturgis. She then picked up Robinson's daughters from Armstrong Middle School and Starkville High School, and she booked a hotel room in Starkville for all five of them.

 

Robinson and Wordlaw expressed frustration that the county did not replace the levee before danger became imminent.

 

"What if the levee broke (today)?" Wordlaw said. "We would have had no way to get the elderly people out of the community, the kids wouldn't have been able to come home safely on the school buses and the roads would have been closed. The county needs to do something about this."

 

 

Problems and inaccessible solutions

 

The county has been seeking federal and state funds to replace the levee, emergency spillway and floodgate valve for the past several months.

 

Howard, Pritchard and Campanella have traveled to Jackson multiple times to discuss funding options with state agencies. Campanella told the board of supervisors in December the county could apply for as many as five grants to fund the $8 million project.

 

The lake was built in the 1960s and holds about 3,406 acre feet, or more than 148 million cubic feet, of water at normal operating conditions. Its full capacity is more than 454 million cubic feet over 935 acres. The county had tried to minimize pressure on the levee by limiting the amount of water in the dam since 2016, when a Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality inspection confirmed the levee needed repairs.

 

Pritchard found in 2016 that the portion of the levee alongside County Lake Road showed signs of excessive slope failures, and a possible cause was rapid drawdowns -- when the lake's water level rises and drops in a short amount of time, like it has done recently.

 

"If you went out there during the Christmas holidays, it looked like a barren desert. But if you go out there right now, it looks like the Gulf of Mexico," Pritchard said Tuesday. "It rained 17.8 square miles. Everything that happens in that big of an area comes to the lake. It doesn't take very much rain to fill it up."

 

Representatives from MDEQ assisted Pritchard with the Tuesday afternoon inspections. They have a short-term solution for the problem once the water level goes down, but it will not go down for several days thanks to forecast rain today and over the weekend that could increase the risk of breaching, Campanella said.

 

In the meantime, four, 12-inch pipes are carrying water over the levee to a nearby emergency spillway to alleviate immediate pressure on the dam.

 

 

Evacuation shelter options, road closure plan

 

The county storm shelter at the intersection of Lynn Lane and Industrial Park Road in Starkville will be open as a safe room for evacuees, although it is not an overnight shelter, and Campanella said no one showed up there on Tuesday. The local branch of the American Red Cross is ready to open First Baptist Church Outreach Center on South Jackson Street as an overnight shelter at a moment's notice, she said.

 

Pets are not allowed at either shelter, but the Oktibbeha County Humane Society will temporarily house pets if owners drop them off, Campanella said.

 

County Lake Road, Walter Bell Road, Perkins Drive, Reed Road, Water Well Road, Sun Creek Road and highways 389, 82 and 50 will be closed if the levee breaches. Portions of Sun Creek Road and Highway 50 will close in Clay County as well, according to a press release from the West Point-Clay County EMA.

 

Residents along Trim Cane and Line Creek south of Highway 50 should closely follow the situation at the lake and be ready to evacuate if necessary, the release states.

 

OCH Regional Medical Center and MSU Parking and Transit Services are on standby to provide buses to help evacuate the inundation area, representatives from both said at the briefings.

 

The Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District usually buses students across County Lake Road twice a day, but all buses will be rerouted for the foreseeable future, said David Baggett, SOCSD assistant superintendent for personnel and operations.

 

 

'As soon as I see water coming, it's time to go'

 

Gary Bell and Angela Carter, who live on Howard's street behind the levee, said they would evacuate to a hotel in Starkville as soon as their 11 children returned from school. The buses had dropped off seven by 4:30 p.m. Bell said living in a hotel in the city indefinitely would pose several uncertainties, like how the children would get to and from school.

 

"I don't have the funds to take all of them to school every day and pick them up," Bell said.

 

Some residents of the nearby area, including Ronald Williams and Leroy Johnson, said they were unconcerned about the county's warning but would evacuate if it were mandatory. Both live on Walter Bell Road.

 

"As soon as I see the water coming, it's time to go," Johnson said.

 

However, Howard said that if someone sees the water coming, time to leave has run out.

 

"I would equate this to a tornado warning," he said. "Conditions are right for this breach to take place, (although) it might not happen."

 

 

 

 

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