Homeowners in a neighborhood near Fort Jackson say the U.S. Army is responsible for flooding that swamped their houses and caused potentially millions of dollars in property damage earlier this month.
Residents of King's Grant, a community built just outside the base's gates, believe a failed dam at Fort Jackson is to blame for the Oct. 4 deluge that caused water to rise suddenly into their houses and yards, said Pete Strom, an attorney representing the landowners.
Neighbors are considering a federal lawsuit if the federal government doesn't help pay for damages they suffered when the Semmes Lake dam broke at Fort Jackson, said Strom, whose home also is in King's Grant and received damage. Fort officials said they were still investigating the Semmes Lake dam break.
"People are devastated,'' Strom said, noting that he suspects fort officials "negligently maintained their dam.''
The potential lawsuit in King's Grant signals what could be a flurry of legal disputes between downstream property owners and their upstream neighbors, whose dams broke during the torrential rains earlier this month.
Thousands of residents who live below broken dams are struggling to recover from floodwaters that, in some cases, rose to chest-deep levels in their homes. Many of those upset live in the Gills Creek watershed, which includes a chain of lakes, some with dams that failed during the heavy rains Oct. 4.
Numerous people below broken dams have said they did not have federal flood insurance and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is not offering enough to help make up for the losses. Records released by state regulators Monday showed that most of the 17 dams in Richland County that failed had a recent history of maintenance problems.
Erich Miarka, director of the Gills Creek Watershed Association, said he's already hearing talk of other lawsuits between property owners who suffered damage from failed dams. At least one homeowners group on a lake with a broken dam has retained a defense lawyer in case suits are filed by downstream landowners, he said, declining to name the group because he had been asked not to.
"I don't know how it's all going to play out in court, but I wouldn't be surprised if some of the downstream people who were flooded look upstream and try to sue pond owners upstream,'' Miarka said.
Concerns about how the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control oversees dam safety popped up at a community meeting Tuesday night that drew more than 300 people to an Arcadia Lakes church.
David Wilson, DHEC's water bureau chief, said the agency has in the past week retained a nationally recognized consulting firm to examine dam and lake management in the Gills Creek watershed's string of community ponds.
The company -- HDR -- also will look at DHEC's dam safety program and suggest any improvements that might be needed, Wilson said after the meeting. Officials with DHEC and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now are inspecting all of the more than 600 high and significant hazard dams in the state, with a report due by Oct. 26, he said.
"I think it will lead to changes in that program,'' Wilson said of the inspections and assessments now underway.
But DHEC's past efforts to oversee dams remain in question -- as does the federal government's oversight of dams on Fort Jackson. Dams at the fort are not regulated by DHEC.
Strom said he has been approached by a property owner from the Lake Dogwood area concerned that flooding from multiple ponds at Fort Jackson had contributed to flooding in the man's community off the base in southeast Richland County.
The only confirmed dam break at Fort Jackson was the one at Semmes Lake near King's Grant, a gated community of high-end homes. That dam failed not long before dawn Oct. 4, Strom said. While many dams in South Carolina are maintained by property owners associations, he said, the Semmes Lake dam is a federal responsibility.
"You can understand if a little homeowners' association dam breaks because there are not a lot of resources'" for maintenance, Strom said. "But this is the federal government. They ought to maintain their dams.'"
Fort Jackson spokeswoman Kara Motosicky did not directly address Strom's allegations. But she said in an email that "the cause of the dam failure, and the extent of the flooding caused by the dam's failure, is still under investigation. It will be a long road to recovery for all of those affected by the floods across our state. Fort Jackson leaders are partnering with local, state and federal officials to help where we can.''