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Wilmore Dam Breach Miscommunication

A warning over the Wilmore Dam caused confusion.

The dam over spilled when the remnants of Ida passed through the area.

Hundreds of people were evacuated as a precaution.

We investigated a breakdown in communication that made the possible breach seem more serious.

The area around Wilmore Dam was evacuated after mixed reporting of whether the dam was in danger of breaking.

The chairman of the Cambria Somerset Authority, James Greco, says that wasn’t the case.

“No, the dam did not break, and it was never in jeopardy to break,” Greco said. “It was, there was, you can’t say absolutes about anything but there was no indication, nothing that said there was going to be a dam failure, nothing whatsoever, the dam functioned as it was designed.”

“We had no indications of any type of structural failure on the dam itself, this was water over the capacity of the spillway, and it went to a secondary spillway, which obviously put us into a surveillance mode, and then from there the evacuation mode,” Martynuska said.

Here’s how Martynuska recalls Wednesday’s procedures:

“And this dam had gone into what we call surveillance mode because of the height of the water that was coming over the spillways,” Martynuska explained. “And as that height increased, we got closer and closer to an evacuation point. So, as we got closer to that, we obviously exercised that plan, and exercised it very well, and we moved people out of the danger area.”

However, confusion grew when the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning for a dam break, though many incorrectly took that wording to mean the dam had actually ruptured.

And that misinformation quickly spread across social media misinformation that Martynuska says could mean life or death.

“If we have people who are evacuating who get into an accident, [or people] who don’t think they need to evacuate, but they should,” Martynuska said. “The problem that we have now is, what information source are they going to trust?”

The NWS stood by their phrasing of the warning, saying it was issued correctly.

“The wording is there by design to make sure that people understand the seriousness of the situation,” explained Charles Ross, a Service Hydrologist with the NWS in State College. “This isn’t just an average rainstorm, and yesterday with that dam, that was an extreme situation that, that was going on, and that’s why the product is worded the way it is.”

Greco says that assessment is faulty, especially in a location that historically has seen some of the worst flooding in United States history.

“We didn’t, the National Weather Service never talked to us. We had no contact with them, the first contact we had was when they put that warning ‘dam break,’” said Greco. “They’ve got to use better terminology because they scare people, especially in Johnstown, with a history of floods.”

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