Officials: Dam at Mississippi lake could soon fail

County officials work on the Oktibbeha County Lake Dam, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, near Starkville, Miss., after County Engineer Clyde Pritchard warned the dam's failure was imminent. Emergency management officials in one Mississippi county say heavy rains could cause a failure in the dam at Oktibbeha County Lake and they're urging residents near there to evacuate as a precaution. (Brad Robertson/The Starkville Daily News via AP)

STARKVILLE, Miss. — Heavy rains could cause the failure of a dam in a rural northeastern Mississippi county as officials on Tuesday urged residents to evacuate as a precaution.

Oktibbeha County Emergency Management Agency Director Kristen Campanella said the county engineer had inspected the Oktibbeha County Lake dam, reported extremely high water levels in the lake and noted the dam could fail at any time.

Mississippi has one of the highest numbers of dams that pose dangers and are in poor or unsatisfactory condition, according to a two-year investigation by The Associated Press.

The Oktibbeha County Lake dam was rated “fair”the last time it was inspected in 2016. A February 2019 report made available to the AP on Tuesday noted ongoing seepage problems that the owners — the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors — said they lacked money to fix.

The report did not detail how much the repairs would cost or how long the problem with seepage has existed.

The board has issued a warning about the current danger of a breach and activated an emergency action plan, news outlets reported. The plan, reviewed Tuesday by the AP, says a breach would lead to the closure of nine highways.

While the evacuation is not mandatory, Campanella urged residents near the dam to relocate immediately to a safer distance. The number of people affected wasn’t immediately clear. Campanella told the AP there were about 130 property addresses in the area. “A lot are family properties, though, so there are multiple trailers on the land,” she said.

The emergency plan states that 108 structures would need to be evacuated in the event of a breach.

Campanella said a community safe room has been set up “as a staging area” until a Red Cross shelter opens at a local church. The dam is about 8 miles (13 kilometers) northwest of Starkville.

Mississippi has 5,886 dams counted in federal records. Of those, 375 are high-hazard dams, meaning they could kill someone if they fail. Of those, 35% are in poor or unsatisfactory condition — the fourth highest share in the country among the 44 states and Puerto Rico that had high hazard dams in bad shape.

Since the beginning of 2014, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality has counted 42 dams that have failed. At least nine others have been drained, sometimes in face of imminent hazard.

According to the National Weather Service, the area of the Okitibbeha Lake on Tuesday had received 2.5 to 3.5 inches (6.3 to 8.9 centimeters) of rain over 24 hours. Based on radar estimates, it received 2 inches (5.1 centimeters) over six hours, said meteorologist John Moore.

Moore said the area has recently gone through flash flood warnings. “They started the year really, really wet and haven’t gotten a break,” Moore said.

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