More than nine months after October’s record rain and flooding, nearly two dozen roads in South Carolina closed due to the damage still have no scheduled date for repairs to begin.
The problem is that most of those roads either ran across — or were washed away by — the 36 Midlands and Pee Dee dams that failed in the exceptionally high water. And state Department of Transportation (SCDOT) officials say they cannot rebuild the road unless the dam’s owner has a plan to either repair the breached dam or knock it down entirely.
“If the dam owners decide to decommission the structure, we stand ready to come in and put something in place to get the road reopen,” Transportation Secretary Christie Hall told reporters in a briefing hosted by the Governor’s Office last week. “But we’re not prepared to go in and rebuild a private dam.”
October’s flooding caused $137 million in damage to state-maintained roads, according to figures released by the Governor’s Office. While more than 500 roads were closed due to safety reasons at the storm’s worst, SCDOT documents state only 33 were still shut down at the end of June. Of those nearly three dozen roads, 24 list only “To Be Determined” next to a completion date. All but one of those road closures are due to dam failures.
Complicating the matter is South Carolina’s relatively loose dam regulations. The state Department of Health and Environmental Control regulates larger dams, but the vast majority in the state do not fall under any state or federal oversight. DHEC has required owners of regulated dams to submit a repair plan for structures that were damaged by the flood or are not up to code. So far, 13 dams have been approved for repairs, according to DHEC’s website.
But unregulated dams will likely take much more time to finish, according to SCDOT’s chief engineer for operations Andy Leaphart. There is no deadline for the private owners of those dams to submit a repair proposal. In fact, Leaphart said there are even some small ponds whose ownership is unclear due to long-forgotten deeds.
“We’re going back to old (SCDOT) construction plans from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, depending upon the location,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “And some of those property owners had truly thought their property stopped right at the edge of the pond.”
He said SCDOT has hired a title search company to determine the true owners of some small dams and ponds. Once ownership is determined, that owner will have the choice of rebuilding the dam or allowing it to permanently breach. But that is entirely up to the dam’s owners, not SCDOT. “We own the road, but we don’t own the dirt that it’s sitting on,” Leaphart said. “We have the right to maintain the road… but we don’t own the dirt that it sits on.”
Leaphart said the owner of a small dam near Batesburg-Leesville and the property owners around Lake Elizabeth north of Columbia have already informed SCDOT they do not intend to rebuild.