Speakers at a variety of public meetings in recent months have questioned whether there is a plan to evacuate the area should dams at Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Steam Station ever fail.
“There are plans in place and they are pretty thorough,” said Stokes County EMS Director Greg Collins, noting that while the emergency plans are not available to the public, they have been shared with local first responders in Stokes, Rockingham and Pittsylvania counties. He noted that access to the plans was limited to those agencies for safety purposes. “It is not that we don’t want people to know the plans, but a lot of this if you publish it then some terrorist, if they wanted to, could figure out where to damage the dam. But if people have questions about it they can call us and if we need to we can find a Duke power rep to talk to them.”
Collins said there is no current concern that any of the dams at the Belews Creek plant would fail, but noted that it was good to have a plan in place for any potential emergency situation.
“Is it something to be scared of? No,” said Collins. “But just like any other possible disaster you need to plan for it. Duke has spent a lot of time and effort on this and in making sure we are informed. There is no eminent danger of this happening. Duke and the state come out and check these dams very frequently.”
Collins said the plans, while comprehensive, also offered simple directives for residents who might be downstream of the dam.
“Basically the plan is to get to higher ground,” said Collins, noting that the emergency plans break down possible failures into three possible categories. “An unusual event that is slowly developing is a Level 3. A Level 2 is a potential dam failure that is rapidly developing. A Level 1 is an urgent dam failure that is eminent or already in progress.”
The plans set out the creation of a unified command center which would bring in a a number of local agencies including operations and logistic planning, and provide a plan of action for level.
“Duke would probably be the lead but we would all be there saying what resources do you need and what do we need to do to help,” said Collins. “Something this big, one person or team could not do it alone.”
Stokes County E911 Director Del Hall said in the event of any dam failure residents downstream would be notified through the county’s emergency notification system.
“We have a database from CenturyLink that we use to call out,” he said. “We can map it so it calls people so many miles out from Belews Creek.”
He said that residents wanting to be notified on their cell phones can register those numbers on the Stokes County E911 website.
“There is an emblem on the page for Code Red,” said Hall. “If you click on it, residents can register their cell phones. All they have to do is fill out a form.”
Collins said in the event of an emergency at the power plant a scripted message would go out through the system notifying residents of the emergency and describing which dam system was having the problem.
“It would say ‘Listen carefully, your life may depend on immediate action,’” said Collins. “‘If you are in the area proceed immediately to higher ground away from the Dan River. Do not travel on roads crossing the Dan River. You cannot outrun or drive away from the flood wave. Proceed immediately to higher ground.’
“That is exactly the same message that would go out if we had a major flash flood event,” said Collins. “There are no official evacuation routes. It is to go to the closest highest ground immediately, even if that means going to the highest hill.”
He noted that in any flooding event people needed to avoid driving through flooded roadways.
“It only takes so many inches of moving water before the water can lift a car and move it,” said Collins. He recommended that if residents were concerned about a failure at the dam, they should treat it as they would preparations for a possible house fire. “Talk to your family members and have a plan for how you are going to get out and where you are going to meet.”
He said it also helps for people to be prepared for any emergency.
“The first few hours are on you,” said Collins. “EMS will be overwhelmed in the event of a natural disaster. If people can manage themselves for a while, then we can take care of the ones who are less fortunate.”
He added that if there was ever a dam failure at the power plant the most impacted area would be Pine Hall and areas downstream in Rockingham County, but noted that it would likely result in power outages throughout the region.
“You have to have water to produce steam,” he said. “It will have a ripple effect for at least a short period of time.”
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.