Flood Risk

Protecting Dam Breach Inundation Zones

Dam failures are a ‘low probability but high consequence’ event best addressed by preparation and maintenance.
By: | February 28, 2017 • 7 min read

After a five-year drought, the rains finally returned to California this winter. Lake Oroville, which was formed in 1967 at the foot of the Sierra Mountains by the nation’s tallest dam, began to refill.

An atmospheric river, colloquially known as a “Pineapple Express,” continued dropping water at such a pace that it replenished the reservoir and then some. The swollen lake forced the excess water onto an emergency spillway alongside the Oroville Dam for the first time in half a century.

The spillway cement crumbled and sent a cascade of water down the mountainside. Engineers feared the erosion compromised not only the spillway but also the 770-foot-tall earthen dam.

An emergency evacuation was hastily ordered and nearly 190,000 residents were forced to flee their homes. Traffic clogged roads. Fortunately, no life was lost and water levels eventually receded.

“There has to be a more robust conversation around flood.” — John Dickson president, NFS Edge Insurance Agency

For many, this crisis is a wake-up call for renewed assessment of the aging infrastructure of the U.S. dam system and the emergency response plans drawn to prevent loss of life in the event of a failure.

Dams Exceeding Effective Dates

Nearly all of the 700 dams managed by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are more than 30 years old. More than half have reached or exceeded the 50-year service lives for which they were designed. Oroville Dam turns 50 next year.

Tim McCarty, risk control manager, Trident Public Risk Solutions

Tim McCarty is a risk control manager at Trident Public Risk Solutions, which insures a wide range of municipalities including those in close proximity to a dam. His statistics on the aging dam system in the U.S. are even more alarming.

“The average age of our dams nationwide is 56 years,” he says. “And, the average age of a failed dam is 62 years.

“So we’re kind of reaching that point where we’re starting to have some very old infrastructure and if it’s not properly maintained we may see repeats of this type of an incidence,” McCarty said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says dam failures are a “low probability but high consequence” event.

Since they rarely occur, many people who live downstream in “dam breach inundation zones” are completely unaware of the potential hazard. But they are, in fact, at the mercy of the dam’s ongoing health.

“The only time the concept is front and center is when water is rushing over the dam,” said John Dickson, president of NFS Edge Insurance Agency.

“I worry constantly that that’s a total disservice to the American people. We need to have the conversation when the sun is shining.”

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Dams are a vital part of the U.S. infrastructure. They provide flood protection, water supply, hydropower, irrigation and recreation. But all it takes is one busy muskrat to compromise the integrity and cause a breach.

The operators of the Oroville Dam were advised in 2005 to shore up the spillway with concrete. For a dozen years, the expensive recommendation was tabled. The reasoning was the emergency spillway was never used because the lake water never rose high enough.

“With a dam breach, when it fails, it fails quickly, the water comes out quickly and there’s a limited amount of time.” — Dr. Louis Gritzo, vice president and manager of research, FM Global.

But when it finally did, the emergency response — mass evacuations and helicopters conducting air drops of dirt and boulders to fortify the dam —averted a catastrophe.  But it also was an expense way beyond the cost of maintenance.

Perhaps most alarming, not all people received the emergency notification when the evacuation was called, according to the Associated Press.

Dams Fail Quickly

Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers issues a “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.” Bridges, roads, tunnel systems are evaluated on capacity, condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public safety, resilience and innovation.

Dams received a “D” grade in the 2013 report. The next report is due March 9, and there is no expectation for a major shift in that grade. The Army Corps of Engineers estimated it would currently take $24 billion to fix all dams that need repairs.

State agencies regulate most of the nation’s 84,000 dams. Unlike bridges and roads, the U.S. government may inspect the dams but they don’t maintain most of them. More than 65 percent are privately owned and those owners may lack the money needed for adequate maintenance.

Louis Gritzo, vice president and manager of research, FM Global

Experts say dam owners need to know how their structures are aging and prepare for the repairs that need to be done. Develop a timeline for a replacement and how to respond if the dam fails.

“We’re chasing an aging population,” said Louis Gritzo, vice president and manager of research with FM Global.

It is most important to conduct regular inspections and deal with what seems to be minor issues immediately.

“Many people just think you build a dam and it’s just there and fades into the background,” McCarty said.

“But it really is an active system that has to be maintained just like a road or a bridge.”

Gritzo said he discusses with clients opportunities to retrofit facilities and fill in the weak spots. More often than not, an engineer looks at an aging structure and weighs when it is best for a new build. The cost of that is often too challenging, Gritzo said.

Unlike a river flooding over its banks, a dam breach may occur with little to no warning. For that reason, an emergency response plan is needed to lay out how much time is required to get mitigation efforts in place and who is responsible for completing each task.

Conduct Hazard Assessments

“With a dam breach, when it fails, it fails quickly, the water comes out quickly and there’s a limited amount of time,” said Gritzo.

Risk managers need to conduct a very good hazard assessment in the event one of these dams has a catastrophic failure. FM Global uses tools such as complex computer models to calculate different breach scenarios and determines where the water might go and how much flooding might occur when it gets there.

As of 2015, a quarter of dams designated “high hazard” don’t have an EAP.

The insurer works with clients to decide if that amount of water is something they can protect a facility against, or if it’s too large.

“If it’s a meter of water or less you can protect against it,” Gritzo said. “That’s an easy cut-off point.”

More than a meter of water and there’s much fewer protection measures available.

The risk manager that is associated with the facility needs to know the risk exposure, how to react and who to contact in an emergency.

As of 2012, there were 13,991 dams classified as “high hazard,” up 3,000 from a decade earlier.

When a dam is designated a “high hazard,” it means there’s a potential for loss of life if it fails. All high hazard dams require an emergency action plan (EAP). Dams with a “low hazard” or “significant hazard” may have a low expectation for loss of life but still carry potential for damage to surrounding terrain, roads or buildings.

As of 2015, a quarter of dams designated “high hazard” don’t have an EAP. Sometimes, the owners don’t even know they are labeled high hazard, McCarty said.

Risk managers should contact the authority or municipality that creates the EAP to start an ongoing communication and organize emergency drills.

“The time to be swapping business cards and introducing yourself is not when there’s an emergency,” Gritzo said.

John Dickson president, NFS Edge Insurance Agency

McCarty periodically reviews the state assessments of dams in his clients’ communities to try to ascertain the condition of the dams and what kind of ongoing maintenance has been required. He also checks to make sure each community has an EAP in place should something occur.

“Our clients are doing a great job with it, but we know that there are a lot of dams that aren’t getting the attention they need,” McCarty said.

“There has to be a more robust conversation around flood,” said Dickson of NFS Edge.

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“The way we do that is not responding in the face of imminent disaster but having the conversation when the levee is not about to be breached or the spillway is not being activated because the dam is at historic highs.”

Municipal leaders should prepare to address the ongoing maintenance that is needed, the EAP they have in place and the responsibilities that go along with having a dam, McCarty said.

“We’ve had an incident here that has heightened our awareness. Those things tend to tail off as time passes,” McCarty said.

“We really need to keep this in our collective memories otherwise we’ll see more and more of these incidents occur.”

Juliann Walsh is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Absence Management

Establishing Balance With Volunteers

It’s good business to allow job-leave for volunteer emergency responders, whether or not state laws apply.
By: | January 10, 2018 • 7 min read

If 2017 had a moniker, it might be “the year of the natural disasters,” thanks to a phenomenal array of catastrophic or severe events— hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, ice storms and floods.

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Combined with smaller-scale fires and other emergencies, these incidents tax the resources of local and state emergency services, often prompting the need to call volunteer emergency responders into action.

But as lean as most organizations are already running, volunteer activities can sometimes cause friction between employees and employers. Handling conflicts the wrong way can potentially lead to legal headaches, harm employee morale and batter a company’s reputation.

State by State Variations

Most employers are aware of the various federal and state leave laws protecting their employees, including family and medical leave, pregnancy leave and military leave. But leave laws that protect the livelihoods of volunteer emergency responders are more likely to fly under the radar of some HR managers and risk managers.

Such laws don’t exist in every state, but more than 20 states do have some type of law in place to protect volunteers including emergency responders, firefighters, disaster workers, medical responders, ambulance drivers or peace officers.

Marti Cardi, vice president of Product Compliance for Matrix Absence Management

The laws vary broadly. Nearly all specify that such leave be unpaid, and that employees disclose their volunteer status to employers and provide documentation for each leave. But there is a spectrum of variations in terms of what may trigger an eligible leave. Some, for instance, apply for any emergency that prompts a call from the volunteer’s affiliated responder group. Others may require a government declaration of emergency for the law to be triggered.

While many of the laws do not explicitly require employers to let employees leave work when called to an emergency during a shift, most specify that an employee may be late or even miss work entirely without facing termination or any other adverse employment action.

Some states mandate a maximum number of unpaid leave days that a volunteer can claim. But others may place more significant burdens on employers. In California, for instance, employers with 50 or more employees are required to grant up to 14 days of unpaid leave for training activities in addition to any leave taken to respond to emergency events. For multistate employers, keeping on top of what obligations may apply in each circumstance can be a challenge.

Significant Risks

Large or mid-sized employers may rely on absence management providers to keep them in compliance. For smaller employers though, it may be as simple as looking up a state’s law via Google to find out what’s required. However, checking in with the state department of labor or the company’s attorney may be the best way to get the correct facts.

“I would caution that just because you don’t find something [on the internet], it doesn’t mean it’s not there,” said absence management and employment law attorney Marti Cardi, vice president of Product Compliance for Matrix Absence Management.

For example, Cardi said, an obscure Texas law provides job-protected leave for volunteer ham radio operators called into service during an emergency.

Cardi said employers should task HR to investigate the laws in each state the company operates in, and to ensure that supervisors are educated about the existence of these laws.

“If a supervisor is told by one of his or her employees, ‘Sorry I’m not coming in today … I’ve been called to volunteer firefighter duty for the [nearby region] fire,’” she said, you want to be sure that the supervisor knows not to take action against the employee, and to contact HR for guidance.

“Training supervisors to be aware of this kind of absence is really important.”

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An employer that does terminate a protected volunteer for responding to an emergency may be ordered to pay back wages and reinstate the employee. In some cases, the employee may also be able to sue for wrongful termination.

And of course, “you don’t want to be the company in the headlines that is getting sued because you fired the volunteer firefighter,” she added.

If an employer bars a volunteer from responding, the worst-case scenario may be a third-party claim. Failure to comply with the law could give rise to a claim along the lines of “‘If you had complied with your statutory obligation to give Jane Doe time to respond, my loved one would not have died,’” explained Philadelphia-based Jonathan Segal, partner at law firm Duane Morris and managing principal of the Duane Morris Institute.

“That’s the claim I think is the largest in terms of legal risk.”

Even if no one dies or is seriously injured, he added, “there could still be significant reputational risk if an individual were to go to the media and say, ‘Look, I got called by the fire department and I wasn’t allowed to go.’”

The Right Thing to Do

What employers should be thinking about, Segal said, is that whether or not you have a legal obligation to provide job-protected leave for volunteer responders, “there’s still the question of what are the consequences if you don’t?”

Employee morale should be factored in, he said. The last thing any company wants is for employees to perceive it as insensitive to their interests or the interests of the community at large.

“Sometimes employers need to go beyond the law, and this is one of those times,” — Jonathan Segal, partner, Duane Morris; managing principal, Duane Morris Institute

“How is this going to resonate with my employees, with my workforce, how are people going to see this? These are all relevant factors to consider,” he said.

There’s an argument to be made for employers to look at the bigger picture when it comes to any volunteer responders on their payroll, said Segal.

“Sometimes employers need to go beyond the law, and this is one of those times,” he said. “Think about the case where’s there’s not a specific state law [for emergency responders] and you say to a volunteer, ‘No, you can’t leave to deal with this fire’ and then people die. You as an employer have potentially played a role, indirectly, because you didn’t allow the first responder or responders to go,” he said.

The bottom line is that “it’s the right thing to do, even if it’s not required by law,” agreed Cardi.

“I feel that companies should have a policy that they’re not going to discipline or discharge someone for absences due to this kind of civic service, subject to verification of course.”

Clear Policy

While most employers do strive to be good corporate citizens, it goes without question that employers need to guard their own interests. It’s not especially likely that volunteer responders will try to take advantage of the unpaid leave allowed them, but of course, it could happen.

That’s why it’s important to have policies that are aligned with state laws. Those policies could include:

  • Notifying the company of any volunteer affiliations either upon hire or as soon they are activated as volunteers.
  • Requiring that employees notify a supervisor as soon as possible if called to an emergency (state requirements vary).
  • Requiring documentation after the event from the head of the entity supervising the volunteer’s activities.

If at some point it becomes excessive – someone has responded to emergencies five times in nine weeks, then it’s time to examine the specifics of the law and have a discussion with the employee about what’s reasonable, said Segal. It may also be time to ask specifics about whether the person is volunteering each time, or are they being called.

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In some cases, the discussion may need to be about finding a middle ground, especially if an employee has taken on an excessively demanding volunteer role.

“We encourage volunteers to pick the style that best fits their schedule,” said Greta Gustafson, a representative of the American Red Cross. “Disaster volunteers can elect to respond to disasters locally, nationally, or even virtually, and each assignment varies in length — from responding overnight to a home fire in your community to deploying across the country for several weeks following a hurricane.

“The Red Cross encourages all volunteers to talk with their employers to determine their availability and to communicate this with their local Red Cross chapter.”

Segal suggests approaching it as an interactive dialogue — borrowing from the ADA. “Employers may need to open a discussion along the lines of ‘I need you here this week because this week we have a deliverable on Friday and you’re critical to that client deliverable,’” he said, but also identify when the employee’s absence would be less critical.

No doubt there will be tough calls. An employer may have its hands full just trying to meet basic customer needs and need all hands on deck.

“That may be a situation where you say, ‘First let me check the law,’” said Segal. If there’s a leave law that applies, “then I’m going to need to comply with it. If there’s not, then you may need to balance competing interests and say, ‘We need you here.’” &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]