Eliot Cutler and the Toccao Falls Dam Disaster

On the campaign trail, Cutler likes to brag about his time at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), giving the impression that he was a courageous cost-cutter who stood up to the spendthrift bureaucrats. Click below and listen to his puffery:

“Changed the course of government?” It’s a myth he repeats on his website:

Eliot’s job (at OMB) was to make the tough decisions about how tax dollars were spent – to cut out programs that weren’t working, to reshape others and to force necessary changes in government priorities.

But sometimes saying “NO” is just a euphemism for bureaucratic ineptitude.

Left out of Cutler’s long list of Washington credentials and accomplishments is at least one glaring example of how his lack of action in his role as a big government bureaucrat led to unimaginable tragedy.

In 1972, after the collapse of two private dams killed 333 people, Congress rushed through legislation mandating a national program for federal inspection of private dams. In the years leading up to Jimmy Carter’s inauguration in early 1977, two US Presidential administrations had struggled to implement the new dam inspection law. The dangers were well known and well documented, but mid-level officials within OMB resisted funding the program for years, saying that inspections of private dams were a state not federal matter. It was a position that violated Congressional intent and veered from presidential policy.

But just a few months into the Carter administration, the program was funded by Congress after investigative news reports and government analysis again highlighted the dangerous situation. The months ticked by, however, as OMB officials continued to drag their feet and delay the paperwork necessary to release the funds to pay for the dam inspections. In mid-June, California Rep. Leo Ryan, who chaired a House subcommittee that conducted a study on dam safety, warned the OMB of the dangers of delay: “You’re living on borrowed time.”

And there were other warnings, even from within the Administration. On July 13, Philip M. Smith, associate director of President Carter’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, wrote a letter, saying, “Our preliminary statistical analysis indicates that in any year, 25 to 30 dams can be expected to fail,” Smith warned.

That letter was addressed to the person responsible for the OMB’s position on dams: then Associate Director Eliot Cutler.

Despite these warnings, still nothing happened.

Then, four months later, on Nov. 6, 1977, the Kelly Barnes Dam in Toccoa Falls, Georgia collapsed in the middle of the night, killing 39 people – including 20 children as they slept. A 30 foot wall of water came crashing down the river valley with the force of 7,500 locomotives, crushing houses, mobile homes and dormitories at the Toccoa Falls Bible College where students were asleep in their beds.

To get a sense of the enormity of the tragedy, watch the video below:

The eyewitness accounts by survivors of the tragedy are heartbreaking. Bill Stacy, 19, who lived with his parents in a trailer, said: “I heard a bunch of people screaming and hollering. There was this terrible screeching noise .. the trailers were all over the place — some floating, some just came apart.”

Eldon Elsberry narrowly escaped drowning in his pickup truck. After coming to the surface, “I remembered that Bill had said his wife and children were all sleeping. I ran for their farm house, hoping to warn them, but halfway there I saw it begin to float away. The agony was awful I knew a man’s wife and children were floating away….there were many screams, mostly from children. I stood on the bank and watched people die, but I couldn’t do a thing.”

Bodies were found as far away as two miles from the site of the dam, which held back 80-acre Kelley Barnes Lake. Waterlogged mattresses, battered window frames and dozens of uprooted trees littered the banks of the once-small creek.

An investigating board later found that “a routine and proper inspection would have determined that there were some severe problems with that dam…its problems were the kinds of things that could have been caught and corrected.” But on the Monday morning following the dam’s collapse, the paperwork to release the funds to pay for those inspections was literally still sitting on Elliot Cutler’s desk – along with a newspaper bearing the grim headline, “At least 37 Die as Earthen Dam Collapses in Georgia”

The only response he could muster to the senseless loss of life was that it was “a horrible coincidence.”

Congress was furious. Five years after passing the law requiring federal inspection of private dams, not a single dam had been inspected. Rep. Ryan called for the government to begin enforcing the law, saying the Toccoa Falls dam was like hundreds of others around the country – “loaded shotguns pointed at the people downstream.”

Of course, only after disaster had struck did Cutler finally submit the paperwork to the president. Within days of the tragedy, Carter ordered the Corps to put more than 500 inspectors in the field. In two weeks, they visited 95 dams in 49 states, proving that the federal government can act fast when it wants to. But it was small consolation for those who lost loved ones in a horrible tragedy that didn’t have to happen.

That’s Cutler’s legacy at the OMB.

The details of this tragedy were first reported in a 1977 article in the Los Angeles Times by reporter Gaylord Shaw who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for a series on dam safety and the lack of government action. See “Mid Level Budget Officials Blocked Dam Inspections,” by Gaylord Shaw, Dec. 25, 1977, Los Angeles Times.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *