Remembering Jimmy Carter’s impact after 1977 Toccoa dam break
TOCCOA, G.A. (FOX Carolina) - President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter were in church when they heard about the deadly 30-foot wall of water that surged over a small Georgia town. Later that day, Rosalynn Carter was on a plane, bound to help her home state.
In the early morning hours of Nov. 6, 1977, the Kelly Barnes Lake dam collapsed, sending 175 million gallons of water onto the Toccoa Falls Bible College campus and nearby homes. Sam Thompson, a student who survived the flood, was woken around 1:30 a.m. by a friend running up and down his dorm hall, yelling for people to get out. Thompson said he could hear trees “snapping like toothpicks” as the water rushed down the canyon.
Of the 39 people killed, 20 were children. Rescue efforts were hindered by the darkness overnight. Sixty others were injured and the damage displaced nearly 100 people.
The Carters’ actions in the following days and months turned a tragedy in northeastern Georgia into life-saving nationwide reform.
“A lot of the campus was just... obliterated,” said Billy Chism, a former reporter for the Toccoa Record. “So it took, you know, state and federal government to come in and build back roads... just to get in to, you know, start the recovery.”
Rosalynn Carter spent time with first responders, visited survivors at the hospital and met with the families of those who were lost. After viewing the disaster site, she returned to Washington to talk to her husband about aid for Toccoa.
The Sumter Daily reported that Rosalynn Carter said, “Jimmy wanted me to come here and express his concern and to tell them the federal government will do what it can to cooperate.”
President Jimmy Carter provided federal assistance for Toccoa in the aftermath of the dam failure and formed a federal investigative board. One month after the dam break, Carter ordered the inspection of more than 9,000 dams nationwide.
The President dedicated millions of dollars to the inspection program, which revealed problems with dams across the country.
In 1979, President Carter directed agencies to implement federal guidelines for dam safety, which led to FEMA establishing the Interagency Committee on Dam Safety and the creation of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.
The investigative board in Toccoa determined a combination of factors caused the Kelly Barnes dam to fail, including a breach in the crest which eroded over time. The dam was never rebuilt.
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