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Pressure building on rural north Mississippi dam

A rain-swollen lake in rural north Mississippi rose at least a foot overnight amid forecasts of additional downpours, keeping heavy pressure on a dam Wednesday that officials said was in danger of failing.

An inspection of the earthen dam at Oktibbeha County on Tuesday led to warnings that it was in danger of failing and recommendations that area residents evacuate. With as much as 5 inches (12.7 centimeters) of rain forecast by the weekend, workers were monitoring a soggy landslide that stoked the fears.

“There is a still the potential for a dam breach,” Malary White of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said in an email.

Oktibbeha County’s emergency director, Kristen Campanella, said the lake level had risen a foot overnight, endangering about 130 properties and nine highways downstream.

Mississippi has one of the highest numbers of dams that pose dangers and are in poor or unsatisfactory condition, according to a two-year investigation by The Associated Press.

Evacuation was not mandatory but was recommended, Campanella said. She said as many as 25 residents have told law enforcement officials they would consider evacuating if conditions worsen.

At least one resident told The Associated Press she wasn’t going anywhere.

“I’ve been here 30 years,” Valeria Hogan, 70, said as she sat in a car on a dirt road, less than a mile from the dam. She said she’s seen workers making repairs and she’s confident it will hold. “Same lake, same arrangement. It’s no problem.”

The dam is an earthen structure with a two-lane road atop it, and traffic was still being allowed to cross. The dirt road shoulders were squishy with mud in places.

County engineer Clyde Pritchard said the main lake spillway was emptying thousands of gallons from the reservoir every minute, and workers installed four 8-inch siphons to move water from the lake over an auxillary spillway and into a nearby stream.

Seepage cause by the high water level in the lake loosened soil on the normally dry side of the dam and caused a dirt slide that Pritchard discovered Tuesday. The dirt-red gash grew rapidly after it was located but appeared stabilized Wednesday, said Pritchard, who was marking the edges of the landslide with tiny flags to help determine whether it was worsening.

Pritchard said the normal surface area of the lake is 426 acres (172 hectares) but it has grown to about 900 acres (364 hectares).

Lavar and Maefrances Bibbs, a married couple, walked from their home near the dam to the top of the levee to check out the water level. Bibbs said they are staying put, but he was also watching the weather.

“The forecast says it’s supposed to be raining again, 100%, but right now it’s just at a standstill,” Lavar said. “I’m hoping everything calms down and everyone can feel safe around here.”

The Oktibbeha County Lake dam was rated “fair” the last time it was inspected in 2016. A February 2019 report made available to the AP on Tuesday noted ongoing seepage problems that the owners — the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors — said they lacked money to fix.

Pritchard said the county has been seeking money to repair deficiencies in the dam since a 2014 inspection, but the price tag is an estimated $8 million.

“That’s a lot of money for a rural county,” he said. Workers have tried for months to lower the lake level but a broken spillway valve hampered progress, Pritchard said.

The warnings in Oktibbeha County came as heavy rains caused problems around the state. Shelters were opened and sandbags were handed out in the Jackson metropolitan area Tuesday. Flash flooding remained a possibility in parts of the state Wednesday.

There have been at least two other dam failures in the South after heavy rains within the past month.

Holmes Lake Dam in Hinds County, Mississippi, failed Jan. 3. Some vehicles were damaged, but no injuries were reported. A post-failure inspection found faulty construction, said Willie McKercher, chief of the Dam Safety Division at the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.

A pond swollen by heavy rains broke through a dam in Aiken County, South Carolina, on Dec. 23, damaging several vehicles but causing no injuries. Records provided to The Associated Press show that a state engineer determined in 1992 that the dam was too small to be regulated. But a spokeswoman for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control said that after the failure, staff have been re-evaluating whether the dam should come under state oversight.

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