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National Dam Safety Awareness Day: Dam Safety is a Shared Responsibility


May 31 is National Dam Safety Awareness Day, established to encourage and promote individual and community responsibility and best practices for dam safety, and to highlight the steps people can take to prevent future catastrophic dam failures or lessen the impact of a potential failure.  FEMA recognizes National Dam Safety Awareness Day in order to help promote the benefits that dams can offer to communities nationwide.

This commemoration serves as an important national initiative for FEMA at both the national level as well as through several local events this year in Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, and Virginia. One of the events happening in Henrico County, Virginia is the Virginia Dam First Aid Program.  It’s aimed at helping Virginia dam owners with routine and emergency repairs that will be demonstrated at Echo Lake Park by Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation.

National Dam Safety Awareness Day commemorates the tragic failure of the South Fork Dam in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on May 31, 1889, which resulted in the loss of over 2,200 lives, and was the worst dam failure in the history of the United States.

damage after Johnstown flood
Destruction after the South Fork Dam failure in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Photo credit: National Park Service

Dams are a vital part of the American infrastructure and provide economic, environmental, and social benefits. Anyone who has enjoyed an artificial lake knows some of these social benefits firsthand.  The benefits of dams, however, can be countered by the risks they sometimes present. The failure of even a small dam is capable of causing significant property and environmental damage, as well as the loss of life.

For 30 years, FEMA and its federal partners have worked to reduce the impacts of dam failures across the nation through the National Dam Safety Program. The program, led by FEMA, is a partnership of States, Federal agencies, and other stakeholders encouraging individual and community responsibility for dam safety. Reducing the risk of dam failure is the driving force of the National Dam Safety Program, central to the mission of ensuring that the public and property owners downstream of dams are informed of the risk of dam failure.

Here’s a snapshot of what the National Dam Safety Program is all about:

  • Raising public awareness of dam safety,
  • Lessening the impacts of dam failure by assisting States in establishing and maintaining dam safety programs,
  • Providing technical training to state and federal dam safety staff, and
  • Supporting research and the development of guidance to advance the practice of dam safety to improve public safety.

States have the responsibility for regulating about 80 percent of the dams in the United States. With support by the National Dam Safety Program, state dam safety programs have been raising dam safety awareness with the goal of preventing a dam failure like the one experienced in Johnstown over a century ago.  The program serves as a real investment in preventing dam failures and reducing the impacts of such failures on lives and property.

A great example of the National Dam Safety Program in action is in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  With funding from a National Dam Safety Program grant, the Commonwealth developed a process for estimating costs and prioritizing dam safety rehabilitation needs across the state.  In 2012, the Virginia legislature approved $14 million for the repair of State-owned high hazard  dams in need  of repair throughout Virginia, largely as a result of the research and analysis from this program.

So take a look at the resources below and learn more about dam safety.  On this National Dam Safety Awareness Day, or any day that you’re enjoying the benefits of a dam in your community, remember that a team effort goes into making them as safe as possible.

Other resources

Last Updated: 
06/02/2017 - 09:21