As a volunteer with the Red Cross as the Disaster Chair for Ravalli County I have some concerns about the readiness for disasters here in the valley in several respects. One of the charges given by Congress when they chartered the Red Cross (without federal funding) was to respond to disasters. We also have the responsibility to prevent (where possible) and prepare for disasters.
Sometimes the “prevent” amounts to mitigation of the seriousness of disasters. To do that it takes the cooperation of the community as a whole. A recent example was the power outage in the Florence, Stevensville and Corvallis area when the temperature was 22 degrees below zero in parts of the valley. Sometimes these events cannot be “prevented” because of unforeseen events but the seriousness of such a disaster (which is the most likely serious disaster this valley faces in the depth of the winter) can be mitigated by being prepared. That doesn’t just mean the Red Cross should be prepared, but everyone.
It is well known that FEMA and the Red Cross asks that people be prepared to shelter in place for 72 hours. That means having everything necessary to survive for that period of time. That doesn’t mean to have everything to be comfortable but to survive. In the event of a power outage that would mean a way to keep warm (heavy blankets, safe backup heat, etc.), food, water and required medications on hand in a supply that would last at least 72 hours. It is also important that those places such as rest homes and assisted living centers, which have a fiduciary responsibility to the people in their care, also be able to shelter people in place for at least 72 hours and beyond. Because of the special needs it would be difficult if not impossible to shelter those people somewhere else unless it was necessary to evacuate them to another facility.
In other words, if people in the community are not prepared then they will have to depend on others which causes the whole preparation system to break down. So the more people and businesses that are prepared the less suffering and loss there will be. In a major disaster it will take 72 hours for FEMA and the Red Cross and other Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD) to respond in a major way to help out with supplies and other help.
For the Red Cross it would take some time, in this type of disaster, to get shelters set up with emergency power and supplies. One of our great charges is to sign up shelters in the area (we have several but need more) willing to install interfaces for generators and then finding businesses and individuals that would have generators they could move in to hook up to support the shelter.
One of my major concerns is that this county has more “high hazard” dams than any other county in the state. High hazard does not speak to the condition of the dams but refers to property damage and lives that could be lost in case of a failure.
Two dams that would likely have significant property damage and loss of life would be Como Dam and Painted Rocks Dam. It is our hope that the powers that control these dams conduct due diligence to do everything possible to reduce the risk of dam failure and install warning devices to save lives. There has been public discussion and discourse about Como dam which is regulated by the Bureau of Reclamation. Such a discourse occurred last year which was fruitful and a good beginning. However, there are several things that can be done to mitigate the number of lives lost if there was a failure of that dam. The Painted Rocks dam is of greater concern for several reasons including the design of the dam and the lack of public discussion on the Emergency Action Plan and lack of a plan that would save lives in a dam failure.
To prepare for dam failures adequately one must consider a catastrophic failure, like the dam was picked up from the earth and the water allowed to freely flow. If you do everything to prepare for that possible scenario that could be caused by serious flooding (recent Colorado event for example), earthquake or since it is an earthen dam a failure of the structure of the dam then you would be prepared for any degree of failure.
If the Painted Rocks dam was to have a serious failure the loss of life could be substantial in our valley. Is there cause to worry and fret about this? Without preparedness I believe there is. Is a dam failure eminent? Only God knows but certainly not being prepared is not the way to handle this. Right now, basically the Emergency Action Plan for the dam is “run like hell” and that is not a plan to give us comfort in case of a failure of any type. I have read somewhere that if you are prepared you shall not fear.
There are no monitors on the dam. The only way right now that people could be notified is if there was someone sitting near the dam and saw it go and then had a communications system that would get into the valley so people could be alerted.
I and another member of our Disaster Action Team were invited to participate in an inundation exercise on the Hebgen Dam in southwest Montana. Granted that dam is the first in a series of dams on the Missouri River and a failure would put many more people at risk from there to the Eastern border of Montana but they have several redundant systems in place to warn officials all up and down the system. It starts with a warning siren at a campground just below the dam with instructions posted at the campground instructing people where to run to in order to get out of the path of the flood. There are several other systems, none depending on the human eye that would alert authorities in several counties of a failure. There are monitors based on satellite telemetry, water level and ground movement. These are set up so that some of the signals would go through to a living person, not to an office that might be closed certain hours, even if some were damaged.
It is clear that Como and Painted Rocks would not have the destructive potential as the Hebgen Dam collapse but I think lives are worth saving here in the Bitterroot and Missoula also.
If there was a total inundation of Painted Rocks Dam, which is administered by the MT Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), late at night, for example, it would send a wall of water 22 to 26 feet high measured in the middle of the river at Darby. Depending on the condition it would take 2 to 5 hours to reach Darby depending on whether it is clear weather or worst case scenario. If the inundation or failure of the dam occurred at midnight, by 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. the water would hit Darby with a destructive wave that would surprise the residents and probably cause severe loss of life and property damage. The communications lines from the dam would be cut immediately (unless there was a satellite system) and so no one in the West Fork Valley would even know it was coming until it hit them.
To us who will be working to help people pick up the pieces that is not acceptable. There needs to be several warning systems on the dam not dependent on someone’s visual observation. Those systems need to be redundant and need to contact a live person such as at the 911 Center here and Missoula County. There also needs to be systems to alert campers and those who will be faced with that great wall of water first. Darby should not be sacrificed in this situation.
The danger is limited to spring and summer and early fall but it is something that needs to be addressed to mitigate any event. Como Dam needs to do the same in my opinion.
Being a little familiar with what a major disaster looks like we can also plan to make it easier for the people to have shelter and food and clothing during this time by getting shelters on the list that are above the flood plain of these two dams. We are in the process of doing that and would invite anyone to contact us if they have ideas.
This flood would hit Hamilton in 5 to 8 hours and could be a surprise to them as well depending on what communications and power stations are knocked out by the water up river. In the worst case scenario this water would hit with a 20 to 26 foot wall of water (measured from the center of the river) and would likely wipe out all the bridges connecting the east side of the valley with the west.
Because great potential for loss of life exists, this needs some attention as soon as possible. Will the flood happen in the middle of June this year? Will it not happen? Will it happen in 10 years? No one knows and being prepared with means of communicating with valley residents and of warnings so people can head for higher ground is only common sense and may save many lives in our valley if and when the worst happens.
As in all disaster considerations, the Red Cross is prepared to work with anyone who will partner with us to mitigate this possible disaster as well as many others that can occur. The Colorado event last year could happen here and it would likely put many of the dams at risk and therefore lives.
My figures and estimates came from the Painted Rocks Dam Emergency Action Plan which can be viewed at the Office of Emergency Management. This “action plan” is not good for any scenario except a visual report on a dam failure if the person had communications ability.
Dallas D. Erickson