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The 1977 Toccoa Flood
Report of Failure of Kelly Barnes Dam Flood and Findings

by Federal Investigative Board
December 21, 1977


On Sunday, November 6, 1977, at approximately 1:30 a.m., the Kelly Barnes Dam near Toccoa in Stephens County, Georgia, failed during a period of intensive rains. The resulting flood took 39 lives and did extensive damage to the Toccoa area and especially to the campus of the Toccoa Falls College.

Immediately following the disaster, the Honorable George Busbee, Governor of Georgia, asked the President of the United States for Federal technical assistance in assessing engineering, hydrologic, and other issues related to the failure of the Kelly Barnes Dam. On November 7, 1977, Governor Busbee appointed a "Task Force on Dam Safety" to, among other things, immediately initiate a responsible, coordinated inquiry into the circumstances surrounding this incident and causes thereof. He charged the Task Force with the preparation of an interim report to the Governor which will identify and inventory available Federal, State, local, and private investigatory resources and expertise and recommend the most appropriate and efficient means of examining the underlying causes of the disaster involving the Kelly Barnes Dam. On November 8, 1977, during a meeting with Governor Busbee, his newly appointed Task Force on Dam Safety, and others, it was publicly announced that President Carter had assured Governor Busbee that Federal assistance would be provided in connection with determining the cause of failure of the Kelly Barnes Dam. Thumbnail of White House memorandumDr. Phillip Smith of the President's Office of Science and Technology Policy, representing the administration, announced that the Corps of Engineers had been assigned the mission of organizing and leading a Federal technical investigation. Subsequently, a memorandum from the White House to Secretary of the Army Clifford L. Alexander, Jr., (Exhibit 1) requested the Secretary:

"To authorize the Corps to provide necessary assistance over the next month or six weeks that will make possible a technical assessment of the Kelly Barnes Dam failure. Please do not hesitate to seek the assistance of other Federal agencies having useful expertise in this problem."

The Corps requested and received assurances of assistance from the U.S. Geological Survey (Department of the Interior), the Soil Conservation Service (Department of Agriculture), and the National Weather Service (Department of Commerce). Accordingly, a technical Federal Investigative Board was formed consisting of:

Mr. Robert L. Crisp, Jr., Chairman, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Mr. William E. Fox, National Weather Service
Mr. Robert C. Robison, Soil Conservation Service
Mr. Vernon B. Sauer, U.S. Geological Survey


The purpose of this report is to present the results of a Federal investigation into the failure of the Kelly Barnes Dam aimed at determining the probable cause(s) of failure.


At the request of Governor Busbee, the Board restricted its attention to determining the probable cause(s) of failure of the dam and the technical details relating to the failure. Therefore, no attempt was made to assess downstream damage or to determine liability for the failure. The Board recognized that it might be virtually impossible to determine the exact cause of failure because the failure removed a major portion of the dam and masonry structures. Also, the age of the dam, the lack of design, construction, and maintenance records, further handicapped the investigation. The Board elected to examine all possibilities and then to offer its judgement as to the most likely occurrence.

Field investigations and data gathering were accomplished by personnel from each of the agencies on the Federal Investigative Board and various State agencies. The investigations made were:

  1. Detailed measurements, sketches, and plane table surveys.
  2. Core drilling for soil samples.
  3. Debris logging and sampling.
  4. Review of old records, including newspapers.
  5. Personal interviews with individuals having knowledge of the dam or its history.
  6. Public meeting to solicit information about the dam and conditions or incidents that may be related to its failure.
  7. Meteorological studies.
  8. Hydrologic and hydraulic studies.
  9. Laboratory testing.
  10. Stability analyses.
  11. Studies of old maps and photographs.
  12. Excavation of remaining portions of the dam.


The Board was able to piece together a general picture of the dam prior to failure. The Kelly Barnes Lake was located near Toccoa, Georgia (Exhibit 2).

The Kelly Barnes Lake was located near Toccoa, Georgia (Exhibit 2)
Click on image to view a larger version.

The dam was approximately 400 feet long with a crest width of approximately 20 feet and about 38 feet high at its maximum section. The dam was concave upstream filling a narrow portion of the gorge formed by Toccoa Creek. The dam impounded a lake at normal pool elevation of approximately 40 acres.

The dam and surrounding areas were covered by a heavy growth of bushes and trees. On the left abutment (looking downstream) an earth spillway (main earth spillway) had been excavated to the left of the dam. This spillway apparently carried all normal flow of water around the dam. Two masonry intake structures had been constructed on the left central upstream face of the dam and were partially or totally obscurred from view by the brush and trees. On the right rim (looking downstream) a low area in the approach road acted as a secondary earth spillway. The slopes of the dam, approximately one vertical (1V) on one horizontal (1H) were steep compared to today's standards. A slide on the downstream slope had occurred in this area and had not been repaired.


Immediately after the Federal Investigative Board was formed on November 8, 1977, efforts were undertaken to obtain maximum public involvement. On November 10, a news release announced formation of the Board and solicited old photographs and first-hand knowledge about the dam and its construction history.

On November 14, a second news release was issued by the Board setting up a two-day public meeting at the Georgia Baptist Assembly on November 17-18 in an effort to encourage local people to provide any first-hand knowledge about the incidents leading up to the failure, copies of old photos, details about earlier construction features of the dam, observations on visits to the dam site, or any other knowledge which may provide a broad-based background. Copies of a public notice were sent by mail to every household and business firm in Toccoa and Toccoa Falls.

Attendance at the public meeting was sparse, except for news media, and limited information was produced by the public meeting.

Interviews were conducted by the Investigative Board following the public meeting with a number of local citizens who indicated various degrees of knowledge about the structure. Telephone interviews were conducted with people as far away as California and Texas in an effort to locate historical data about the dam.

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