Keith Riddle is the mayor of Burkesville, a town nestled against the Cumberland River in southwestern Kentucky. Since he took office in January, Riddle (who is also the town barber) has had one major problem on his plate he never expected to deal with: the possibility that his town will be submerged under 14 feet of water.
"It was panic for everyone," says Riddle, recalling the first time he and the town's 1700 other residents learned that the Army Corps of Engineers had designated the massive Wolf Creek Dam 20 miles upstream at "high risk for failure" due to holes in the dam's limestone foundation. Applying a new rating system developed after the levees protecting New Orleans failed during Hurricane Katrina, the Corps considers Wolf Creek Dam one of the six federal dams most desperately in need of repair, both because of the severity of the erosion and because of the threat to life and property of the dam were to burst.
"The school has done mock evacuations and they have got every kid to safety in about 45 minutes," says Mayor Riddle, who keeps topographical flood maps in his office so residents can stop by and examine the potential threat to their homes. City Hall, where he sits, would be underwater. So would the courthouse and most of Main Street. "The worst case scenario it would destroy the whole town."
Looking to relieve pressure on Wolf Creek Dam, the Corps of Engineers has lowered the water level of Lake Cumberland – a 100-mile recreational mecca created when the dam was built in the 1940's – from 723 feet to 680 feet. But that has created a new problem.
"It eliminated every boat ramp on the lake!" bemoans Ed Slusser, the owner of Alligator One Marina, who says he has lost $1 million dollars in business because of the drop. "This was a marina that has been here for 50 years. This was the first commercial marina on Lake Cumberland. And it's going to be the first marina on Lake Cumberland to disappear."
But the Army Corps of Engineers says it has to put safety before revenues in this case, and that the drop in the lake level has significantly decreased the chances of a dam burst. It's working around the clock to fill the holes that have been eroded with a cement-water grout. Now, the residents of Burkesville are sleeping a little easier, as are the residents of Nashville, Tennessee – just a couple hours downstream.