A Nebraska dam that collapsed under pressure from an icy flood had a history of unaddressed ice issues and had no formal emergency plan because regulators wrongly assumed that no one would die if it failed, according a report released Tuesday.
However, the investigation concluded there was nothing the dam's operators could have done in the early morning of March 14, 2019, to prevent Spencer Dam from failing after unusually intense snow and rain created a raging flood on the Niobrara River in rural northern Nebraska.
Kenny Angel, who lived just beneath the dam, was found dead after the flood washed away his home and business. Workers for the Nebraska Public Power District, which operated the dam, warned Angel just minutes ahead of time of the impending danger.
The failed dam was featured in an Associated Press investigation in November that found scores of dams nationwide in even worse condition, and in equally dangerous locations. The AP identified 1,688 high-hazard dams — meaning loss of life is likely if they fail — rated in poor or unsatisfactory condition as of last year in 44 states and Puerto Rico.
Nebraska regulators had categorized Spencer Dam as a “significant hazard" — a rating that meant no loss of life was expected if it failed, and no formal emergency action plan was required. Tuesday's report by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials said the dam should have been rated as “high hazard,” which it said could have led to a plan to modify it to increase its flood capacity.
The report cited the wrong classification as one of two human factors contributing to the dam's failure and devastating consequences. It said state regulators were unaware the dam had failed under ice pressure in 1935 and been damaged by ice on the river in 1960 and 1966. The report said historical records about the dam were lost, unorganized or unavailable.
As a result, “while the dam appeared to be well maintained, no provisions were made to pass or prepare for ice run events,” the report said.