A Dam Is a Promise

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, Noah’s Ark was a Little Golden Book on Jon Fortner’s daughter’s bookshelf.

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, it had gone by other names. In 1750, the area that would become Buckeye Lake was described as a great swamp known as “Buffalo Lick.” When filled in 1830, the lake was known as “Licking Summit Reservoir.” And in May 1894, the lake was repurposed for recreation, the area being dedicated as a public park and renamed “Buckeye Lake.”

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, engineers from the U.S. Army Corps said there was a high likelihood of a dam failure and the safest measure would be to drain the lake permanently. The cause of concern stemmed from the homes, which began sprouting up about a century ago, after the state’s approval, as well as the docks placed into the lakeside of the dam that have now “displaced or disrupted large portions of the embankment, significantly weakened by the more than 370 homes and other structures that have been sunk into the 4.1-mile earthen dam.” The 177-year-old dam no longer met current safety requirements.

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, recommendations were made for immediately replacing the dam to prevent a ” catastrophic failure.”

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, state officials said they would analyze the report and make recommendations along with holding public meetings for input before making a final decision, which would take several weeks.

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, Fortner read his daughter Noah’s Ark before bedtime. He tucked her in and said, “Goodnight.” He told his wife as they prepared for bed, “All things considered, I’m pretty happy with our new home.”

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, approximately 3,000 people lived within the projected flood zone. The Corps report stated, “The resulting flooding would most probably occur without sufficient warning or evacuation time,” where the people, homes, and businesses “face the potential of being hit by up to an 8 foot wave of water, mud and debris.”

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, dams could fail for one or a combination of the following reasons: Overtopping caused by floods that exceed the capacity of the dam, deliberate acts of sabotage, structural failure of materials used in dam construction, and inadequate maintenance and upkeep, among other things.

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, Fortner and his wife read the property listing: “Bonfires, morning swims, loons, afternoons on the boat or by the shore side, s’mores, bass fishing…Bring on the magical memories you’ve been dreaming of creating for your family…This idyllic waterfront retreat is lovely – with recent updates throughout, it is move-in ready so you can enjoy your downtime at your new home.”

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, the dam was about 41/2 miles long starting at Liebs Island and going into the town of Buckeye Lake. Local historian Andrew Woodgate said the dam dates to 1830. He said a study by a private engineering firm in 1997 concluded the potential for a dam failure “very low.”

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, “The corps cite catastrophic failure with little to no warning,” Buckeye Lake resident Dan Hollandar said. “Of course, I’m concerned about the economic impact, but doing nothing and ignoring the corps’ report is not an option.”

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, local business owner Darryl Kaltz said he didn’t think the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the governor had considered the effect a long-term closure would have. He explained how a long Buckeye Lake closure would also harm Walnut Township Local Schools because it would cause property values to decrease and harm a district that is already struggling financially. “I see the potential of hundreds of millions of dollars in property values (dropping) with all three counties (Fairfield, Licking, Perry), loss of jobs in a major way and see also just the revenue loss from the state side,” Kaltz said. “It’s going to affect the town of Buckeye Lake, the town of Thornville and Millersport, of course. But more importantly, it’s going to be jobs and people that’s going to be affected.”

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, the kind of action required to repair the dam would make it impossible for most boating since the water would be too shallow for summer levels, harming the establishments surrounding the lake in Thornville and Millersport (bars, restaurants, shops, marinas, rental businesses) so dependent upon the summer recreation season for financial viability and survival would suffer immensely.

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, dams were considered a necessary measure for man’s expansion, a product for helping contain inconvenient bodies of water.

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, there was no procedure for recovering the dead from a dam failure. No best practices. No plan for catastrophic failure once it occurred. The process limited to a select few, like in Danover, Michigan, where floodwaters once swept through the town just after school got out and men had to dig through the mud and debris to unearth the bodies of their children.

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, Fortner explained to his daughter how Noah could live to be 600-years old: “Noah’s long life was a sign of God’s patience.”

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, a series of dam failures in the 1970s resulted in a national focus on inspecting and regulating dams. On February 26, 1972, a tailings dam owned by the Buffalo Mining Company in Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, failed. Within minutes, 125 people were killed, 1,100 people were injured, and over 3,000 were left homeless. On June 5, 1976, Teton Dam, a 123-meter-high dam on the Teton River in Idaho, failed, causing $1 billion in damage and leaving 11 dead. Over 4,000 homes and over 4,000 farm buildings were destroyed as a result of the Teton Dam failure. And in November 1977, Kelly Barnes Dam in Georgia failed, killing 39 people, most of them college students.

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, Ohio Department of Natural Resources spokesman Lana Bianca said the dam was designed as a canal feeder lake, not as a flood control reservoir, and not designed for its current usage: “The dam failed in 1834 and was repaired, and then sustained near failures in 1968, 1990, 2003 and 2006,” Bianca said.

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, Fortner got a “screaming deal,” his real estate agent said about the waterfront property. She said, “Neglect is another word for opportunity.”

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, a house, like a dam, was a promise of safety.

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, Lee Kabak, vice president of the Buckeye Lake Region Chamber of Commerce, said he did not think there was any imminent danger and area businesses needed the gates closed to allow the water level to rise to its summer level. “There have been many studies. They have evaluated it previously, but the report found them outdated and incomplete and unreliable,” Kabak said.

Before Buckeye Lake Dam failed, despite his wife’s protests, Fortner carried her across the threshold of their new home.

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, the dam in Johnstown, Pennsylvania collapsed beneath the burden of heavy rains. On May 31, 1889, after the catastrophic failure of the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River, residents woke to the sound of thunder. Tons of water came crashing down the narrow valley. The wave annihilated homes and farms in its path, reaching as high as 60 feet and moving at over 40 miles per hour. The desperate tried to escape, clinging to debris that would save some and crush others. And then there was the destroyed wire works that the wave claimed, unspooling miles of barbed wire. The helpless became entangled. The wave only lasted 10 minutes, but the worst was yet to come. When night fell, those who were left huddled on roofs and attics to wait out the night. Others floated along on debris that was swept downstream to the old Stone Bridge. Piled up against the arches, the debris caught fire, entrapping 80 people who had survived the initial flood wave.

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, Johnstown was the worst dam failure in U.S. history.

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, draining Buckeye Lake, replacing the 4.1-mile Buckeye Lake dam, and relocating the 3,000 people within the “inundation zone,” were all options being considered.

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, Fortner read to his daughter, “God said to Noah, ‘I am going to wash away the evil in the world with a great flood.’ He told Noah to build a special boat called an ark, to save his family.”

The night before Buckeye Lake dam failed, while lying in bed, Fortner and his wife discussed the news about the dam. Fortner told her they had nothing to worry about, “Everything will be all right.”

The moment before Buckeye Lake dam failed, at 3:17 in the early morning hours, a stray dog crossed Hebron Road on his way to the Dumpsters behind Our Lakeside Diner. Geese on the lake sensed danger before taking flight. The first signs of catastrophic failure began.

Before Buckeye Lake Dam failed, they believed: “If Buckeye Lake is closed for three to five years, it would be disastrous.”

Before Buckeye Lake dam failed, dams were considered “installations containing dangerous forces.”

Before Buckeye Lake Dam failed, the Village of Buckeye Lake slept in their beds.

Michael Salisbury

Mike Salisbury's fiction has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Midwestern Gothic, and Crab Orchard Review, among others. Mike is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Pacific University. He lives with his wife and daughter along Michigan’s West Coast.