Boiling Spring Lakes is still recovering from Florence, 1 dam at a time

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The Brunswick County town, famous for its lakes, is still missing its biggest attraction

BOILING SPRING LAKES — A small mud puddle surrounded by stumps, clumps of grass, rocks and mud.

That’s all that’s left of the Big Lake, also known as Patricia Lake, in Boiling Spring Lakes. The lake drained after Hurricane Florence dumped nearly 30 inches of rain on the city over the course of four days, causing dams around the city to burst.

“It’s just heartbreaking,” said Boiling Spring Lakes City Manager Jeff Repp.

Making progress

Since the storm hit last September, city officials have been working to clean up, make repairs and get life back to some semblance of normalcy.

“With the exception of the dams, the work is about 90 percent complete,” Repp said.

The four washouts on South Shore Road have been completed, and the Lake Hastie storm drain repair wrapped up recently. The next project is repairing the four dams that burst. All four dams — Sanford, Upper Lake, Pine Lake and North Lake — will be treated as a single project. Proposals are due on May 12, and the city hopes to award a contract for engineering and design services in June. But Repp explained that the city has already done quite a bit of work.

“The biggest issue with the dams is that they were all built in 1960, and in 1960 there were no standards for dams,” he said. “Between 1960 and now, dams are regulated at both the federal and state level. So, we have to replace the dams at a new standard that didn’t exist when they were originally built.”

Would a spillway have made a difference?

Prior to the hurricane, the city had planned to construct an auxiliary spillwall to Sanford Dam. The work would have brought the dam up to current standards and codes. The city began seeking funds for the project in 2015 and was finally awarded a $1.7 million hazard mitigation grant from the state in 2017. The grant would have paid for the majority of the project, with Brunswick County and the city covering the rest.

“We were getting geared up in 2018, prior to the hurricane, to submit our plans — which had been prepared — to North Carolina Dam Safety for approval,” Repp said. “Then we were going to go to bid right after that. But the hurricane got in the way.”

Repp believes even if the spillway had been constructed prior to Hurricane Florence, it wouldn’t have prevented the disaster that followed.

“With the amount of water that we had received, the design standard to which we were we’re going to be designing the spillway wouldn’t have held,” he said. “Hurricane Florence far exceeded that storm requirement.”

Repp added that it’s impossible to design for a storm like Florence.

“The expense of what you would be putting in for that would far exceed the value of doing the project,” he said. “All of the dams that get replaced will be built to a higher standard than they were prior, but they will be designed to the standard that (North Carolina) Dam Safety tells us that we have to design them to.”

The total cost of repairs for the four dams is estimated at more than $18 million. At this point, Repp is not sure if the city will be able to use the $1.7 million from the hazard mitigation program for the reconstruction project.

“We’ve asked the department of public safety to just basically hold onto that $1.7 million grant, but it’s really two different funding sources,” he said. “That was a hazard mitigation program, which was something that was not related to a disaster.”

But now that the city has experienced a disaster, the funding is figured differently. Under hazard mitigation, the city was looking at having to come up with 25 percent of the local share. Under the public assistance program, the state picks up that 25 percent because it’s the result of a natural disaster.

The city hopes to have designs and the construction contracts let for all four dams completed by the end of this year, with work beginning on the smaller ones.

“Our goal is to have all the work completed by the end of 2020,” Repp said.

Still one spring, many lakes

Despite losing Big Lake, the largest and most visible of the city’s lakes, residents and visitors can rest easy knowing that BSL is still a city of “one spring and many lakes.”

Only about five of the city’s lakes were impacted by the breach. Tate, Mirror Lake, Spring and Seminole lakes all remain and are waiting for swimmers this summer.

Repp believes once the dams are rebuilt, Big, North, Pine and Upper lakes will be restored thanks to a large watershed. He adds that many of the “old-timers” do too. They recall that when sinkholes drained the lakes back in the 1990s, they re-filled in a matter of days.

For now, driving over the bridge and seeing the empty lake basin is difficult. But Repp says it’s reality.

“Obviously, we’re all excited to get back to the point where we get the dams restored and the water back,” he said. “But it’s reality. We suffered a significant storm event, and as a result, we need to put the pieces back together. We have a plan in place, and we’re moving forward with it.”

Reporter Renee Spencer can be reached at 910-343-2363 or

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