VASS TOWNSHIP, NC (WTVD) --By definition, dams are barriers that stop water to create reservoirs and lakes. When they work, they're an integral part of making economies go, but when they fail there are devastating consequences.
The historic rainfall from Hurricane Matthew further exposed those dangers, and the financial liabilities for developers who eschew their responsibility from maintaining those dams.
The Army Corps of Engineers counts 3,262 dams in North Carolina - more than most states - and 1,210 of those are considered "high hazard potential," meaning any breaches could affect many people.
Woodlake Dam in Moore County - which holds back Lake Surf - almost did breach a few days after the Hurricane - forcing hundreds of evacuations and the displacement of several neighborhoods. The dam, officially registered as Moore-040, is owned by private investors, and was saved only by the heroic efforts of the National Guard which amassed an army of sandbags to plug the holes in the cement and cracked spillway.
As the I-Team first reported, however, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) just ordered the Woodlake owners to breach the dam and drain the lake - drying up the investments of hundreds of homeowners who no longer live on a waterfront property.
"See that house over my left shoulder? You're looking at my life savings," resident Charlie Jones quipped to the ABC11 I-Team. "My house has gone down $100,000. Someone could say that's too bad, that's my problem - but it is a problem for (Moore County), because that's $100,000 of property valuation that I don't pay taxes on anymore. That could buy a lot of teacher supplies. That could fix a lot of pot holes. That could fix a lot of stuff."
The dam has also been a problem for those who live downstream; a problem that nearly turned deadly after Hurricane Matthew. That's when inspectors found holes in the dam's cement and a cracked spillway.
"I was evacuated from my home and not allowed back in here because if that dam broke, it would kill us," Vass resident Susan Rogers lamented to ABC 11 Eyewitness News. "That dam is a death trap. That's my best words for it. It's a death trap."
WATCH: CHOPPER 11 OVER THE LAKE
An ABC11 I-Team investigation sought to find out how and why the dam decayed to such an extent, and who should be held responsible.
State records show private developers built the dam on Crains Creek in 1973, followed by a resort, golf course, and hundreds of homes along the newly-created waterfront. The property was sold to a German investor, Ingolf Boex, who remained the owner until just a few years ago when he filed for bankruptcy.
CLICK HERE FOR THE DOCUMENTS RELATED TO THE I-TEAM INVESTIGATION
According to Woodlake residents, maintenance crews were supposed to look over the dam regularly, while state inspectors from the Department of Environmental Quality (formerly the Department of Environment and Natural Resources) would also visit from time to time - as state law requires.
The I-Team found several records that confirm those inspections, including a notice dated March 29, 2007, offering four recommendations and warning of the severe risks of a dam failure, including "property damage and/or possible loss of life downstream."
Moore County residents evacuated say Woodlake Dam problem for years, yet no one is doing anything about it. pic.twitter.com/RVD3WI221Z— Diane Wilson (@DWilsonABC11) October 12, 2016
Inspectors returned to Moore County several times later, issuing a Notice of Deficiency at least three times between April 2014 and July 2015. Among those notices was a Dam Safety Order, setting in place a 91-day deadline for the Woodlake owners submit plans and schedule for dam repairs.
Woodlake's owners did submit plans on December 4, 2014 - proposing a $2.5 million restoration that would take place over three years. The state even approved those plans, but they never happened - and the state never issued any fines of penalties. A spokesperson for the DEQ explained the Woodlake's bankruptcy and change of ownership essentially reset the clock on enforcement. DEQ officials added that the new owners decided the original design plans did not meet their expectations, so they hired a new firm.
Jones and other Woodlake residents tell the I-Team they've been seeking answers from Woodlake's new ownership group, and the property manager, Julie Watson. Records show the new owner is another German investor, Illya Steiner, the managing partner of Steiner + Company GmBh & Co. KG in Hamburg.
At a news conference earlier this month, Watson says Woodlake "intends" to repair the dam once and for all. Watson, however, refused to speak with us. Steiner, similarly, never returned our calls or emails.
DEQ officials are now using pumps to drain much of the lake to relieve the pressure on the dam and help facilitate permanent repairs. The DEQ added that officials with the Dam Safety Program met last week with Watson, and a team from the engineering firm Geosyntec. The DEQ ordered Geosyntec to submit a preliminary design for a temporary breach so that there will be no more lake, and thus no more threat to anyone living downstream like the Rogers.
The owners will then have to decide what to do - either rebuild the dam or permanently forego the recreation of Woodlake.
Officials at the DEQ confirm the state visits high hazard dams for inspections at least once a year, and they encourage residents to play a role in the dam's maintenance. If residents have any questions or concerns about their dam, DEQ engineers are eager to answer those calls at (919) 707-9220.
The state dam safety program page
The state inventory of dams