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A reservoir break in southeast Missouri sweeps away a state park superintendent and his family

December 14, 2005
By: Katie Peterson and Leslie Yingling
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - More than one billion gallons of water spilled from a v-shaped breach 600 feet wide in an AmerenUE hydroelectric plant reservoir in southeast Missouri, flooding the home of Johnson's Shut-ins State Park superintendent.

Rescuers found park superintendent Jerry Toops in a tree, said Connie Patterson, communications director for the state Department of Natural Resources. His wife Lisa Toops and their three children were found in a field north of the home, she said.

"Their home was destroyed. The entire family was taken to the hospital. The mother and father are being released, but the three children remain in critical condition in a St. Louis-area hospital," Patterson said.

Susan Gallagher, an AmerenUE spokesperson, said the company will pay for the children's medical costs.

"We're going to do everything possible for that family," she said.

"They've lost their residence, their cars, and everything inside the home," Patterson said. The family's home was on park property, which is currently walled off by a pile of trees 15 feet high, she said.

"Limiting access to the park has not been a problem, but we're doing everything we can to get people out of the area," Patterson said.

About 100 people live near the plant in Lesterville, but no others were injured, Patterson said.

The AmerenUE plant is located along the Black River in Reynolds County, about 120 miles southwest of St. Louis. The breach occurred just before 5:30 a.m. Wednesday, and AmerenUE president Gary Rainwater said the 50-acre reservoir took only 12 minutes to drain.

Rainwater said an instrumentation failure may have caused the plant's automated system to pump water into the already-full upper reservoir, eroding its rock wall structure.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission oversees inspections and regulations of the resevoir.

Mark Robinson, director of the Office of Energy Projects, which oversees dam safety, said the plant's last annual inspection was in August of this year.

"The conclusion of both our 2004 and our 2005 inspection was that the project was being propertly maintained and operating consistently with the license," he said.

The plant was completed in 1963, and the federal commission has overseen its inspection since then.

"All we know is that the upper reservoir was breached, the water flowed down the mountainside, across a county road and through the park, and into the Black River," Robinson said.

From there, he said, it flowed into the plant's lower reservoir.

"It's now effectively past the lower dam, and flowed down the river into Lesterville, where I believe they had about a 2-foot surge, but it stayed within the banks," Robinson said.

"We have a team of engineers out there, including our regional engineer from Chicago," Robinson said. They will first inspect the lower reservoir, and then examine the upper wall and the configuration of the breach, he said.

"We will ultimately do a complete engineering review of that failure," Robinson said. "Whatever we might learn from this, if we can apply it to other projects we will, but first we have to determine what exactly happened and see if we can take something from this that is applicable to other projects."

AmerenUE does not know when the plant will be back in service. Company officials said no customers lost electricity because of the plant's power loss, but some power outages occurred when the water knocked down electric poles.