Governor Seeks Federal Aid For Dam Break Victims

Gov. Haley Barbour on Monday asked for a federal disaster declaration for areas of Lamar and Marion counties damaged by a March 12 dam break. About 3.5 billion gallons of water from Big Bay Lake dam flooded nearby homes.

Preliminary damage assessments from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency shows more than 50 houses and mobile homes destroyed in Lamar County with two destroyed in Marion County. In the two counties, about 45 houses and mobile homes were damaged.

MEMA executive director Robert Latham said the level of damage falls short of what the Federal Emergency Management Agency normally requires for a presidential disaster declaration.

"However, we believe this incident requires that we explore every option available to secure the assistance necessary to assist those who have been affected by this disaster,'' Latham said.

President Bush will make the final decision on whether to declare the area a disaster and release federal funds for the cleanup process.

Officials with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality are discussing tougher safety rules for the state's 3,700 dams. Department of Environmental Quality officials say discussions began before the Big Bay Lake dam incident and talks have taken a more urgent tone now.

Jamie Crawford, DEQ's land and water resources division assistant director, said the new regulations being discussed would require each high hazard dam to have an emergency action plan in case of a breach. Currently, such plans are voluntary.

Crawford said another proposal would require dam owners to have annual inspections by engineers - at the dam owner's expense.

"It's really some regulations that some of the other states have adopted and we thought it would just be a real good idea to do the same thing here,'' he said.

Currently the state inspects high hazard dams such as the one at Big Bay Lake on one-, three- and five-year schedules.

Public hearings on the regulations will be held in April. Crawford hopes to have them adopted by the DEQ board by May.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)