THERE IS LITTLE to be done in Toccoa, Ga., right now except to bury the dead and begin the civic and emotional recovery from the disaster that struck the community Sunday morning when the dam gave way. The first news reports about the ensuing wash-out - the 37 lives lost, the homes, bridges and trees swept away - had a grimly familiar ring: Buffalo Creek, W. Va. in 1972 (125 killed) . . . Canyon Lake Dam, Rapid City, S.D., in 1972 (230 killed) . . . New-found Creek Dam near Canton, N.C., in 1976 (four killed) . . . Teton Dam in Idaho in 1976 (11 killed). In Toccoa, the immediate need is for quick and efficient disaster relief. On this score, the initial response of the Carter administration was swift, with Rosalynn Carter going immediately to the scene on Sunday afternoon.
As for any similarities between the failure of the earthern dam in Toccoa and the negligence involved in Buffalo Creek and Teton, conclusive findings are not yet in. Judgments will be issued soon enough on the structural integrity of the 35-year-old dam, the inspection procedures and the role of the Corps of Engineers in monitoring the safety of its operation; but for the present, Toccoa has joined the growing list of communities that have crossed the line from vulnerable to stricken.
A side effect of the Georgia disaster is that public attention will surely be drawn to the hard fact that the national dam-safety program is a jumble of mismanagement and ineptitude. Two reports last June from the General Accounting Office spell out that the National Dam Inspection Act of 1972 has remained little more than a piece of paper. Few of its provisions are being regularly carried out by the Corps of Engineers. After five years, the GAO notes, not only has the inspection of the nation's estimated 49,000 dams not been conducted, but furthermore the methods of arriving at the 49,000 figure, itself are open to question.Some dams were listed more than once, others weren't listed at all. As for how often the Corps has taken to the field for some basic checking, the GAO says flatly:
The Corps of Engineers has made up no actual inspections of dams pursuant to the National Dam Inspection Act. As a result, the Corps does not know the nature and scope of the specific dangers at dams in the United States, and the Congress has not been given adequate information to consider a national dam safety program.
One of the few comforts in this tale of bureaucratic sloth is that last April the President asked that the confusion be brought to an end. He ordered that the federal government coordinate its many dam-safety programs. An interagency committee was formed and a report is due no later than October 1, 1978. In the meantime, citizens living near dams have two choices: They can uproot themselves and move away, or they can wait anxiously until the federal government pulls itself together. For those who stay, the lesson of Toccoa is that survival may be mostly a matter of chance.It will depend on such things as whether their state has an adequate safety program of its own and whether the community has devised a reliable warning system against dam breaks.For those not already in this precarious condition but in danger of being enticed into it, safety may depend on whether state and local readers demand zoning laws that forbid building in flood plains downstream from potentially dangerous dams. There is probably no way of guaranteering absolutely against further tragedies of the sort that befell Toccoa. But there is much that the authorities can do at all levels - federal, state and local - to reduce the risks substantially.