LINCOLN— A 92-year-old dam that collapsed last week amid Nebraska’s epic flood had been classified by state inspectors last year as having a “significant” risk of causing damage.

A man who lived in a home below the dam, Kenny Angel, was swept away in the collapse of the Spencer Dam and is presumed dead, and a quarter mile section of U.S. Highway 281 was washed out.

Records obtained by The World-Herald indicated that the dam was last inspected in April 2018 and rated in “fair” condition.

But the report from the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources carried an ominous warning about the concrete and earthen structure: “deficiencies exist which could lead to dam failure during rare, extreme storm events.”

A second rating for hazard potential, “significant,” was just below the highest rating, which is “high,” and indicates that “failure or misoperation of the dam” would result in major damage.

Officials with the Nebraska Public Power District, which operates Spencer Dam as a hydropower facility, said that while four deficiencies were noted in the 2018 inspection, most were minor and all had been addressed. 

And Mark Becker, a spokesman for NPPD, said that hazard classifications for dams refer to a “potential” for problems, and the “fair” classification includes the disclaimer “Acceptable performance is expected under most conditions ...”

NPPD officials said they felt the dam was safe and the collapse was due to an “unprecedented” combination of high flows from the Niobrara River mixed with massive chunks of ice.

“It’s certainly been maintained ... and that has included adopting new technologies when they come out,” said Mick Spencer, NPPD’s director of operations.

The deficiencies noted by the State DNR, which included “seepage” downstream of the dam and “spaling, cracking and scaling” of concrete in the spillway area were not effecting the “integrity” of the structure, Spencer told The World-Herald.

Kenny Angel had only recently moved back to where he and his large family had grown up, in a home just below the Spencer Dam, which was built in 1927.

He was described as the “mountain man” of the family. He loved the outdoors and the swift-flowing Niobrara River, which ran through the dam and past a bar/bait shop that his parents had founded back in 1967.

But on March 13, as forecasters warned of a mix of heavy rain and snow on the way, the 71-year-old expressed concerns to his youngest brother — how much water is flowing down to the dam? Are there ice jams upriver holding back flows?

Early the next morning, the 29-foot-high concrete and earthen dam gave way, unleashing an 11-foot wall of water, mixed with thick blocks of ice and sand, that swept away Angel’s home, leaving behind a new river channel where the home, the bar, a handful of motor homes and several vehicles once stood.

Angel’s body is still missing amid the fields of ice and debris carried downstream, despite a weeklong search. His family maintains that Kenny might have survived if given more warning by the operators of the dam, the Nebraska Public Power District.

“I am certain he was not given enough time to evacuate,” said Angel’s 49-year-old brother, Scott, who lives nearby. “I know he didn’t deserve to die like this.”

That opinion was disputed by an official with NPPD, which was in the process of transferring the dam and its water rights to a coalition of natural resources districts in the area.

Becker, the spokesman for the power district, and Spencer, who oversees the district’s hydroelectric plants, said two workers were at Spencer Dam on the night of March 13-14, monitoring the rising water amid a blizzard that residents said left 3 to 4 inches of snow on the ground, preceded by 2 inches of rain.

The workers, Spencer said, had opened some of the five “stop-log” gates on the dam, per emergency procedure when water levels are high, but were blocked from removing more because beams that held the gates in place were frozen. He said that when workers realized that water was overtopping the earthen portion of the dam, they evacuated.

The two employees immediately drove across the U.S. 281 bridge over the Niobrara below the dam to Kenny Angel’s house to warn him. The workers then jumped in their pickup and fled. The dam collapsed shortly afterwards, about 5:30 a.m.

“They told him to get out now,” Becker said. “I don’t think we’ll ever know why he didn’t.”

Said Spencer, “He got as much warning as our folks had. They warned him as soon as they knew the dam was in peril.”

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Given the presumed fatality and the property damage, the collapse may end up in court. The situation raises several questions about the integrity of the 92-year-old dam, which, from time to time, was still used to generate electricity. Was it regularly maintained? What steps, if any, were taken as the water behind it rose? Were there safety concerns? Any emergency plans? An emergency spillway?

Becker, of NPPD, emphasized that the dam was not designed as a “flood control” structure, but one by which the water level in the reservoir would be controlled to facilitate the generation of electricity. Spencer Dam had no emergency spillway to guide water around the dam when water levels are high, unlike the smaller, flood-control dams around Omaha and Lincoln.

State records indicate that the Spencer Dam was last inspected in April 2018, and the state rated it in “fair” condition, then noted that “deficiencies exist which could lead to dam failure during rare, extreme storm events.”

Spencer characterized the deficiencies as mostly minor except one, a seepage found downstream of the dam. He said monitoring devices were in place to ensure that seepage “through the earthen portion of the dam” did not compromise the integrity of the structure.

He said he had no concerns that the dam would fail.

On Thursday, the website for the State Department of Natural Resources, which monitors the safety of such dams, indicated that dam had been “breached — natural causes.”

But a retired inspector for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who used to inspect Spencer Dam back in the 1970s, said concerns about the dam existed even back then.

The retiree, who spoke on condition that his name not be used, said that the vast majority of the 3,700-foot dam was of earthen construction, and earthen dams are not designed to last more than 50 to 60 years without reinforcement. He said he recommended extending the concrete portion of the dam, adding that some of his colleagues were fearful of a “catastrophic failure.” The reservoir behind the dam also had a lot of silt and debris in it, he said, which can work to deteriorate a dam’s structure.

He said earthen dams, with proper maintenance and reinforcement, can stand even when overtopped with water.

Both Spencer and Becker, the NPPD officials, said Thursday that they were not aware of any recommendations to extend the concrete to more of the earthen portion of the dam. Spencer Dam, according to Spencer, received regular maintenance, and in 2015, two so-called “toe drains” were installed to drain water coming through the dam. They were working last week, he said.

They also said that silt would just reduce the water that the dam could store.

Becker said teams of NPPD engineers and officials with the Corps of Engineers, which operates dams on the nearby Missouri River, have visited Spencer Dam since the collapse and are investigating the cause. Huge ice chunks tore a hole in the brick-and-mortar powerhouse, and photographs show a wide gap in the earthen portion of the dam’s southern end — where water had overtopped the dam — as well as damage to the concrete spillway area.

“It was an unprecedented amount of water, compounded by large pieces of floating ice,” Becker said. “I’ve seen pictures (of ice) as large as cars. This was all moving downstream.”

Scott Angel said that when he finally could see the dam on the morning it collapsed, every man-made structure below Spencer Dam had been washed away, to be replaced by a new river channel.

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“The large section of dike that went out was directly west of my brother’s house,” he said. “This wave of water and pieces of ice as big as my pickup went right through it.”

The Angel family was part of the landscape at the Spencer Dam for more than a half century.

Don and June Angel opened a bar and bait shop alongside the spillway in 1967, and raised eight kids in their home there. The bar and home were near the spillway, where the tumbling waters drew scores of fishermen each spring for the massive catfish blocked from moving upstream by the dam.

Don so loved the spot that he carved his name into the nearby bluff by removing trees to create the letters “A-N-G-E-L,” 250-feet high, on a hillside known as “Angel’s Hill.”

When a tornado destroyed the Angels’ bar in 1996, three of Don and June’s children — Kenny, Scott and Coral — rebuilt. The new structure was made of hay bales, and the new bar, called “Angel’s Straw-Bale Saloon,” was a gathering place for residents of Spencer, O’Neill and Bristow. A summer motorcycle rally drew up to 1,500, Scott Angel said.

He said the family began searching for Kenny soon after the dam collapsed, but the search was complicated by the huge fields of ice left behind. A National Guard helicopter was supposed to fly over the area on Thursday, after being unable to fly over earlier because of rescue missions elsewhere.

Kenny and his wife, Linda, had recently moved back to the family home after living in Alvo, east of Lincoln, Scott Angel said. They operate a cellphone tower maintenance service and have four grown children. Linda was in Colorado Springs, Colorado, when the dam collapsed.

Kenny was happy to be back “to his roots,” his brother said. Despite living beneath an aging dam, Scott Angel said, the family didn’t worry that it would someday fall apart.

“We just had our lives and our home and our business below the dam,” he said.

Floods devastate Nebraska, Iowa in March 2019

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After drenching rains Tuesday and heavy snow on Wednesday, Gibbon’s low spots became apparent, first as water filled streets to the curb, and later on Thursday and Friday as the water spilled into lawns and driveways before lapping at foundations. “I’ve never seen so much water, or the force and damage it can do in a short time,” firefighter Jamey Rome said.

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Thirty buildings, including the 55th Wing headquarters and the two major aircraft maintenance facilities, had been flooded with up to 8 feet of water, and 30 more structures damaged. About 3,000 feet of the base’s 11,700-foot runway was submerged. No one, though, had been injured.

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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