May 23, 2003
Big dam problem turns out to be false warning
BY WARREN WISE Of The Charleston Post and Courier Staff
MONCKS CORNER--Fishermen fled, homeowners panicked and Berkeley County's 911 lines lit up Thursday morning as sirens wailed and loudspeakers blasted an urgent recorded warning:
"This is the Santee Cooper system controller. There has been an emergency at the Santee Dam. Please evacuate the flood plain immediately. This is not a test. Everyone should evacuate the flood plain immediately and move to high ground."
The Santee Dam on Lake Marion had failed.
Just a computer glitch, said Santee Cooper officials. But the warning had some folks aquiver. Others ignored it.
"We had people running out of their houses up here scared," said Kathy Schurlknight of St. Stephen.
The mail carrier was using her day off to sell worms to fishermen at Arrowhead Landing on the Santee River when sirens blared at 8:30 a.m.
State-owned utility Santee Cooper, which runs the dam, occasionally tests its flood warning alert system by sounding its 15 sirens in the Santee River flood plain, so she didn't think much about it at first.
Then the voice came over the loudspeaker. Schurlknight, who has lived there for eight years, never had heard that before.
"He must have said it six or seven times," she said. "I called Santee Cooper security, and they didn't know anything about it."
She learned the truth when utility officials called the fish camp that she and her husband own -- but not before watching some fishermen beat a hasty retreat.
Others, she said, just kept on fishing.
Santee Cooper blamed the high-volume false alarm on a computer glitch, and word soon spread along the flood plain that no killer wall of water was speeding down the river.
The threat of a dam break is no laughing matter on the Santee. Engineers estimate that the wave from a collapse would hit the U.S. Highway 52 bridge in four hours. After eight hours, that bridge would be submerged by a river level 25 feet above normal, and 14-foot floodwaters would have reached St. Stephen. The flood would reach the sea within 48 hours.
There are hundreds of homes and structures in the flood plain, and Santee Cooper has given more than 600 residents special warning equipment.
So for a few minutes, life along the Santee got pretty exciting.
At St. Stephen Town Hall, folks were abuzz.
"People kept calling," waterworks clerk Jakki Rivera said. "They wanted to know if it was actually flooding. We told them we would try to find out what was going on and told them to call us back in a few minutes."
At the county's 911 center, calls started coming in from panicked residents.
Emergency Preparedness Director Wes Blanchard said they quickly got the truth out to callers, some of whom had extra reason to be nervous.
"At 3:16 a.m., they had a flood watch go out (for the lower Santee)," he said. "People heard that, and then the sirens went off. I'm sure it caused a little bit of angst for anyone who heard them both."
Back at Moncks Corner-based Santee Cooper, utility spokesman Willard Strong said they're still not quite sure what went wrong.
"A computer program kicked in gear that wasn't supposed to kick in gear," he said. "We're trying to get our arms around what caused this so it doesn't happen again."
To complicate matters, Santee Cooper officials don't think all the sirens went off. Shopkeepers right beside the dam didn't hear a whimper.
"We are about a mile from the dam," said Sam Scott of Harry's Fish Camp. "When they go off, we definitely hear them. We haven't heard a thing."
The utility is trying to sort that out, too.
Schurlknight worries the false alarm might make river dwellers more inclined to ignore future warnings, a concern shared by Strong.
"When you hear this message, we hope people take it seriously," he said. "We are very aware that this caused a lot of anxiety and fear in people, and we apologize to the people of Berkeley County affected by this."
Of course, for the fishermen who didn't flee and wound up with the prime spots all to themselves, no apology is necessary.
Jeff "Jesse" James - Owner of Jesse's Hunting & Outdoors
You can always tell who's in 2nd place by who's whining and crying the most. - Old hockey coach.
Dum spiramus tuebimur
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