Dam failure in Iowa
Lake Delhi Dam breach. Credit: Josh deBerge, Public domain

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On May 19, 2020, a group of engineers and emergency officials gathered at a fire station in Edenville, Michigan to decide what to do about the Edenville Dam, a 97-year-old hydroelectric structure about a mile upstream on the Tittabawassee River. Over the preceding two days, heavy rains had swelled the river, filling the reservoir to its brim and overwhelming the dam’s spillway. The group was just about to discuss next steps when the radios went off, recalled Roger Dufresne, Edenville Township’s longtime fire chief. “That’s when the dam broke.”

“Up at the dam, Edenville residents watched as a portion of the eastern embankment liquified. Muddy water gushed through the breach. Over the next few minutes, that water became a torrent, snapping trees and telephone poles as it rushed past town, nearly submerging entire houses further downstream.