COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Property owners near Fort Jackson are seeking up to $20 million from the federal government for what they say is the U.S. Army's failure to maintain a dam that burst during last fall's historic flooding and rainfall in Columbia.
A federal lawsuit filed Monday says water rushed off the Army training base after the Semmes Lake dam failed, causing more than a dozen homes in the King's Grant neighborhood to flood the morning of Oct. 4.
The lawsuit, the first filed against Fort Jackson since the storm, says the fort knew for two years that the Semmes Lake dam posed a "serious hazard,'' but did not make repairs to the 1940s-era structure or warn the public of the dangers. Federal inspectors cited problems with the dam in 2013, records show.
An inspector with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said deficiencies outlined in the 2013 inspection "may have led to the failure'' of the Semmes Lake dam, according to an email obtained by The State newspaper in January.
Pete Strom, an attorney representing the King's Grant property owners, said there's little question the failure of dams on Fort Jackson caused much of the damage to homes in the neighborhood adjacent to the base.
"The government and Fort Jackson were well aware of the deficiencies that led to these failures,'' Strom said. "This was going to happen sooner or later. Disappointingly, the fort has not been a good neighbor.''
Monday's suit, filed on behalf of 25 property owners, is the first of what's expected to be a wave of lawsuits against the federal government over the October dam breaks, Strom said. Property owners whose homes were damaged in the flood had to wait to file a lawsuit until a six-month federal claims period ended. The period ended recently.
Officials with Fort Jackson had no immediate comment Monday afternoon. So far, Fort Jackson has had little to say, other than to confirm that four dams either failed or were damaged in the massive storm. The fort at one point expressed sympathy to people flooded by the storm.
Last October's storm caused more than 40 dams to fail in central South Carolina as more than a foot of rain fell in over two days.
Many of the dams that broke were under the jurisdiction of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which has been criticized for not inspecting them frequently enough. Some downstream property owners represented by Strom have sued upstream dam owners for the failure of state regulated dams.
But since the deluge, property owners living below Fort Jackson's dams -- which are inspected by the federal government -- also have questioned whether water pouring off the base damaged their homes.
Developed property below the 22-foot-high Semmes Lake dam near Devine Street suffered substantial flooding Oct. 4. Rising water poured through homes and businesses along Wildcat Creek and Gills Creek, damaging buildings that in some cases still have not been repaired. That morning, some cars flooded as waters rose.
The Semmes Lake dam has been a particular source of questions for residents of King's Grant, a gated community of high-end homes, some of which are along Wildcat Creek.
While the lawsuit did not break down individual losses to those property owners, it says up to $20 million in damage resulted at King's Grant. Strom said property owners want to recoup that amount. The suit lists 25 people who live or lived in 13 houses along Wildcat Creek.
According to the King's Grant lawsuit, the Semmes Lake dam broke about 3 a.m. on Oct. 4, as heavy rains pounded the Columbia area. The dike at Legion Lake also failed sometime that morning, the suit said.
Then, between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., water began to rise rapidly in homes at King's Grant along Wildcat Creek below both the Semmes Lake and Legion lake dams, according to the suit. Water levels reached 9 feet in some homes, the suit said. That sent some people fleeing as water swamped the first floor of many structures, residents of King's Grant say.
But by 8 a.m., the water had begun to recede, indicating that dam failures at Fort Jackson caused the flood at King's Grant, the suit said. The 29-acre recreational Semmes Lake held 208 million gallons of water, according to the suit.
The King's Grant lawsuit lists 11 ways the Army "breached its duty,'' including failing to reasonably inspect dams, failing to fix deficiencies in a timely manner and failing to adequately maintain the dams. The suit accuses the army of "blatantly ignoring reports that provided actual notice of the danger of a dam failure.'' It also says Fort Jackson did not lower water levels at Semmes Lake to minimize storm threats.
The suit notes that Fort Jackson has not been forthcoming with records that could provide more insight into what happened in October. The U.S. Army has failed to release a detailed inspection report on the Semmes Lake dam, the suit says. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham,R-S.C., has complained to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the report needs to be released.
Rob Echols, a King's Grant homeowner, said he joined the lawsuit because he has few options to help finance repairs to his house. Echols said his house sustained so much damage that he's been unable to return since the storm. He had no flood insurance and had to move his family into a rented home while working to repair the first floor of his house at King's Grant, he said.
"We don't want anything back except what we lost,'' he said.
The morning of the flood, Echols, his wife, five children and two dogs had to swim out of their home. Echols said the water rose too fast that day to attribute to heavy rains. Wildcat Creek had never threatened his home in the past.
"It was like a toilet flush,'' he said. "Unfortunately, we were kind of ground zero for the water.''
Jacqueline Myers, who also is part of the lawsuit, said she needs help to repair the home she was forced to leave after the storm. She said Fort Jackson had been a good neighbor until she learned that problems existed at Semmes Lake's dam before the storm.
"It's very surprising and disappointing -- particularly if the fort knew the dam was in bad shape,'' she said.