What Would a Dam Failure Look Like?

Flood approaching woman

It took a massive effort unlike anything like it before, but by 1935, the Hoover Dam had been completed. Just a few days after the dam was given its grand opening ceremony, one of its chief purposes began as well: it began to generate electricity.

For those who have stood atop the megalith that is the Hoover Dam, you may have asked yourself: what would happen if this breaks?

What would happen if any dam failure took place is, perhaps, the larger question that the prepper should be asking here, however.

And unfortunately, we don’t have to look very far to get the answers here.

Hoover Dam

There Are Numerous Examples of Dam Failures Throughout History

Take the Banqiao Dam failure in China, for instance.

As the rain fell in August 1975, the waters behind the Banqiao Dam grew to the point that the Chinese were stacking sandbags atop the dam to keep it from becoming a waterfall. But eventually, the strain was too great. The dam burst, and a 20’ tall wall of water seven miles wide was released upon the survivors of communist Mao Zedong’s reign.

It’s said that 26,000 people immediately died from drowning. But the actual death count was much higher than that. As the Chinese people scrambled to the tops of trees and buildings that had still been spared the wave’s destruction, they then faced starvation and death from thirst.

Upwards of 230,000 died from the collapse of the Banqiao Dam as a result.

This is what we see over and over again in history with dam failures, and typically, we see a pattern emerge from the chaos.

The first signs of a problem tend to be some type of structural flaw that goes ignored. Then comes the rain. Often an unprecedented amount of rain as well. When this additional weight is added to an already weakened structure, then the recipe for a dam failure only takes time.

When that time arrives?

Widespread death and destruction.

There Is No Warning

One of the worst parts of dam failure is that there is little to no warning for those impacted. It’s hard to outrun a massive wall of water. In 1928, when the St. Francis Dam failed in California, it resulted in a ten-story tall wall of water. You’re not going to escape that, no matter what you do.

Victims are simply asleep in their beds one moment and then buried alive the next.

Six hundred people are estimated to have died due to the St. Francis Dam, and thousands of homes were destroyed. What more could these people have done? Are there any steps that one can take to survive a dam failure?

While not many, I do think that there are a few steps that one can take to survive a dam failure.

Pay Attention During Times of Unprecedented Rain

A collapsed dam failure

If you live downriver of any major dam, it may be a good idea to stay tuned to your local flow of information during extended rainfall. Part of the reason that the Banqiao Dam was so deadly was that it was the first domino to fall in a series of dams.

Excessive rainfall broke the Banqiao Dam, releasing all its water. That water then flowed to a much smaller, weaker dam, rapidly breaking it. Then that combined water broke another dam. And another. And another.

While there wasn’t much of anything the Chinese at the foot of Banqiao Dam itself could have done to stay alive, if one was miles away from a modern dam, there may be some chance of survival from having access to an early alert of some kind.

A lot of ham radio guys take to the airwaves anytime that severe weather is on the way. If you know how to listen to them while simultaneously listening in on your broadcast FM radio and perhaps your TV as well, you may have a budding chance of getting the early alert that you need to make a decision that could save you from a dam failure.

Head for the Hills

If you receive an alert in enough time and if you have the opportunity, I think this is the only chance you really have of surviving a dam failure. Distance and geography are your two friends here, and you would need to put both of them to your aid as best you can.

Residential homes would likely offer little to no protection whatsoever. That’s one of the things that we see in history with dam failures: homes being swept off their foundation. However, large skyscraper buildings and concrete structures would stand a much better chance.

If there are no hills for you to run to, running up the stairs may be the best you can do. Outside of that, unfortunately, you’re not in much luck.

You’re Going to Lose Power

Dams are widely used throughout the world to generate electricity. Take the Hoover Dam, for example. During peak production, it generates enough electricity for roughly a million homes. This means that even if you live upriver of a dam when it fails, there’s a very good chance that you are going to experience interruptions with your electricity at the very least.

There’s a good chance that you could be completely without power for a long time until the power companies are able to move back in and reestablish electricity within a region. Keep in mind that this requires the flood waters to recede first.

A Dam Failure Doesn’t Leave You With a Lot of Options

I think of this something in the same manner as I do a meteor strike. It’s definitely a possibility, but there’s not much you can do about it other than to prepare for power outages. It’s best just to live your life. Obviously, you don’t want to set up shop right below a dam that looks about as sturdy as a popsicle stick wall, but there are just not a lot of actionable steps that you can take for prevention here other than the advice to stay away from areas where dams could flood.

But there are bound to be other opinions here, perhaps by somebody who knows a bit more about dams than I do. Are there other steps to take to stay alive should a dam fail? Tell us in the comments below.

Additional Resources:


Percy Matthews

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