fort-peck-incidentA terrorist scenario:

The two men sit patiently in the small grove of trees, quietly assembling their gear. Few words are spoken between the two of them. Weighted backpacks with connecting wires are placed in a motorized raft, followed by two coolers and fishing rods. Both are dressed as non-descript fishermen to blend in with the Montana population.

Shortly before sunset the two slide their boat into the waters along the east side of the famous Fort Peck dam near the town of Fort Peck, Montana. The dam, located near the headwaters of the Missouri River on the vast prairies of eastern Montana, has water extending as far as the eyes can see. It is one of the worlds largest rolled earth dams. The picture of this man-made creation is a spectacular sight.

Entering the waters slowly, checking buoyancy and weight distribution, the two start the low power motor on the raft and begin to make their way along the 10-mile stretch towards the spillway. After the 30-minute ride, the throttle is slowed to a bare minimum, as they move in near silence along the dam spillway.

Checking position markers with a flashlight, the phony fishermen close in on marker “G”, a point just east of the spillway on the giant earth berm used to contain the water.

On locating the marker, a series of seven interconnected backpacks are lowered into the water. Each backpack, strategically separated along a common tether, forming a well-conceived plan for disaster. Special knots on the lowering rope enable the terrorists to gauge the depth of the water. Once the desired depth is achieved, the raft is maneuvered so the backpacks come to rest along the sloping earthen fill. The end of the rope is tied to a grappling hook, which is hand pressed into the side of the dam to anchor the explosives into place. The start button on the waterproof timer is depressed, and the world’s single most destructive terrorist act has begun!

The date and time has been carefully chosen. Spring runoff has pushed the dam capacity to near record levels and the 120 minute timer allows plenty of time for the two men to pack all their belonging and disappear before the prescribed detonation time of midnight.

The Fort Peck dam, built in 1943, has served for decades as a source of hydroelectric power, potable water, and seemingly limitless recreation. This sleeping giant, lying unnoticed among the not-too-scenic eastern plains of Montana, is about to be awakened.

Overcast skies made the evening darker than normal, with only a few perimeter lights casting a dotted line along the dam and hydroelectric plant.

Two minutes past midnight, a blast of unmeasurable force, paints a glowing fireball along the “G” marker, the weakest point in the dam’s design. The underwater explosion forces a separation between the earth and water, with water momentarily retreating around an expanding “blast bubble” and then rushing back towards a fractured seam, blasting a massive hole in the earthen wall. Slowly the layers of earth are forced out of the way as a relentless avalanche of water and silt carves an ever-widening chasm in the wall of the dam. And in a seemingly never ending torrent, the dam’s 23 billion cubic meters of water begins to barrel through the Missouri river valley, quickly overloading its capacity.

Within minutes the first word of the dam break begins to reach the media and a frantic scramble ensues as media and emergency rescue teams begin to alert everyone living downstream. Since most people are asleep, the job of alerting people becomes immensely more complicated. Telephones banks are hastily assembled with volunteers, farmers, and housewives calling to wake up every person they can find a number for. Only a few small towns lie within the first two hundred miles downstream – Frazer, Oswego, Wolf Point, Poplar, Brockton and Culbertson. These towns are quickly and totally destroyed and the death toll begins to mount.

Crossing the North Dakota border, the Fort Peck waters combine with the raging waters of the Yellowstone River to wipe out the towns of Buford, Trenton, and Williston.

In approximately four hours, the wall of water collides with the headwaters of Lake Sakakawea formed by Garrison Dam. Garrison Dam, located 70 miles north of Bismarck, North Dakota, is one on the largest dams in the U.S. But its 30 billion cubic meter capacity is suddenly no match to contain the destructive force of Fort Peck’s 23 billion cubic meters of water. And the Garrison dam also crumbles, this time destroying Garrison’s major hydroelectric power plant. The hydroelectric plant in Fort Peck survives, but by now has also stopped because it has run out of water.

The destructive water mass starts moving towards the more populated areas. The first significant city in its sights is Bismarck, North Dakota’s state capital, with a population base of about 100,000 people. Near daylight, panic hits the streets of Bismarck with residents frantically trying to grab belongings, locate friends and family members, and head for higher ground. Emergency vehicles with sirens and PA systems patrol the streets to wake and alert all residents. Keep in mind that the power has been cut off roughly one hour before the water hits. Most forms of communication have been incapacitated.

As the water mass hits the city, it mercilessly rips a path of death and destruction. The first media coverage of the destruction in Bismarck in the daylight hours signals an impending doom for all of the cities downstream. And suddenly the whole nation begins to panic.

Approximately four hours after the Garrison dam burst, the wall of destruction hits the waters of the Lake Oahe formed by the Oahe dam in Pierre, South Dakota. The Oahe dam holds 29 billion cubic meters of water, and is instantly crushed under the massive flood.

At this point, three of the largest dams in the country have been crushed, and the cumulative water mass now totals over 100 billion cubic meters of water, not counting the millions of tons of dirt and debris stirred up as the raging water carves an ever widening channel through the river valley. A second state capital, Pierre, South Dakota is crushed. And another major hydroelectric plant is destroyed.

As the water proceeds, three more dams and hydroelectric plants in South Dakota, Big Bend, Fort Randall, and Gavins Point, are sequentially destroyed causing blackouts in major sections of the Midwest.

Approximately 15 hours after the dam burst in Fort Peck the raging waters carve through another significant city – Sioux City, Iowa, with about 100,000 people. And about two hours later it collides with the first major city – Omaha, Nebraska with a metro population exceeding 800,000 people.

The water mass is now so large that all tributary channels back up for many miles creating far-reaching fingers of destruction. Millions of acres of land becomes flooded with water, soon receding as the water continuously seeks room for its bulging capacity.

Shortly before the end of the first day, the waters reach Kansas City, with a metro area population exceeding one million people.

Media reports for day one estimate the death toll between 25,000 and 50,000 people. Between 2 and 3 million people are now homeless with no working water supply, very little food to eat, no telephone, no power or lights. Thousands of miles of roads have been destroyed, and all train and car bridges on the Missouri River have been destroyed. And the relief effort is slow and sparse because there are just too many people needing help. Many hospitals have been destroyed and the surrounding hospitals have been flooded to over capacity.

As day two arrives the raging waters bear down on the city of St. Louis with its million plus population. St. Louis is very significant because this is where the Missouri River and Mississippi River join together. At this point the normally heavy Mississippi River flow is coupled with the water wall on the Missouri to form an even more massive torrent of death and destruction as it proceeds through a very populated Mississippi River valley.

With more that adequate lead time for people to get out of harms way, fatalities are happening more in the outlying areas, and more for reasons of panic than from being in harms way.

The destruction continues on into Memphis, Tennessee, through Arkansas, Mississippi, and on into Louisiana destroying both Baton Rouge, the third state capital, and New Orleans. The water mass hitting New Orleans is roughly half the size of Lake Michigan.

In just a day and a half a massive trail of destruction over three thousand miles long has been ripped through the center of the United States. The country has literally been cut in half with no ground transportation between the two halves. Nearly 15 million people are now homeless and 250,000 people are missing and presumed dead. Major power plants have been destroyed, and restoring power to the whole country will be a long time in coming.

With this single act of destruction, nearly every person on the face of the earth is somehow affected. Five federal reserve banks have been destroyed. Thousands of major companies have been destroyed. The stock market, domestic and international, is thrown into total turmoil. Most insurance companies simply fold up because the losses are too great. Food supply systems, water supply systems, sewer systems, and many other things we take for granted now take years to repair.

Suddenly, few people care whether or not they are able to connect with Internet; they are more concerned about the survival of their family and friends. People are no longer concerned about going to the gourmet steak house in town; they’re more concerned about where their next meal is coming from and how to feed their family. People are less concerned about investing their money than to see if they have any left. Suddenly all motivations have changed.

The scenario I have just presented was my own creation. Many of the facts have been purposely distorted to prevent anyone from trying this. People at the Corp of Engineers have told me it’s not possible. It may or may not be possible. I have presented this simply to show a sobering example of how everything we know could change over night.

How durable is our lifestyle? How durable is the network of systems that we use to make everything work? Is there another wildcard event that may be equally as destructive?

We live a very fragile existence. It is very presumptuous for us to think that our present strides in technology are going to continually keep ratcheting upwards. It is very presumptuous for us to think that the next generation will have it better than we do. It is presumptuous to think that we will even live in a democracy as a free nation. All of this could change.

As we make future decisions, it is important for us to think about how stable our technology is…how stable our society is…. how stable our future is. I think too often we become insulated from the less fortunate populations in the world, too insulated from the real dangers, too insulated from the random factors that we have no control over.

The Aztec and Inca societies included sophisticated systems for water, transportation, and food. Both were destroyed in wars. The ancient Greeks developed the sciences of physics, mathematics, and astronomy. Today we can walk through the ruins of their temples.

As we plan for our future, let us be mindful of the past. Let us plan for our work to be durable, to survive the challenges of time, changing attitudes, and changing personnel. Let us think long-term not short term.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

NOTE: I wrote this scenario on June 6, 1998, over three years before the World Trade Center Bombing.

One government official told me that this scenario has been routed through all levels of government. After 911, I was real nervous about having the article posted online, but I was told it would actually be better to have it in the open because the terrorist have already considered it, and keeping it in the open will make us better prepared and less likely to happen.

The Fort Peck Dam will be nearly impossible to destroy and the dams downstream will be able to contain the water even if something happens.  But there are many other easier targets, so we always need to consider the extreme possibilities.

16 Responses to “The Fort Peck Incident”

Comments List

  1. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Charles Podgurski</a>

    Nice post, thanks! Memphis still holds a special place in my heart, I spent a few years there and still remember visits to Graceland, Beale Street, and of course the blues clubs.
  2. fivefingers

    This is a fascinating but scary scenario. I'm not sure if it is or isn't possible, but my sense is that as long as its posted on an open forum like this, that we will have our guard up and its less likely to happen. Everything we can think of, they can too. So I appreciate your insights. Beasley
  3. ashlee

    Thank you so much. I know this is a piece of fiction. When writing this I bet you never realised that it could happen. Though I don't believe a terrorist attack will happen, the dam is going to break. Mother nature is cruel and because of the massive water amounts in montana along with the snow fall totals, Fort Peck is currently a 'national disaster' waiting to happen. I currently live in Bismarck, ND and we have been slightly flooding for a few weeks now because of the massive water amounts being let out of fort peck and garrison dams. Fort Peck is a hydraulic dam and was not built to hold this amount of water. Living in Bismarck I will have less than six hours after Peck breaks to get away from the river and to higher ground. My family and I are already stocking up on provisions and planning an excape route. We very much believe that this event will happen. Please if anyone living on the missouri is reading this please be prepared!!!
    • Tristan

      I do indeed think that this will happen, I live in Minot, so it would be awfully terrifiying to hear that an incedent like this happens, be safe...
  4. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Elvie Miller</a>

    I will be travelling from my home in Libby, MT, to Glasgow, MT tomorrow, June 13 on business, and I will be visiting Fort Peck Dam to pray over it because our church is concerned about the situation. The potential for it to fail is real; it is full and the massive snow melt is beyond comprehension and we're just getting warm weather now. This scenario has never happened since the dam was built, so no one knows exactly what will happen. It is too bad the Corps didn't lower the lake leves earlier, but it seems they are under pressure from the environmetalists to help the fish, etc. by keeping more water in during the spring, when they should be emptying it. If the dam survives, it needs to be rebuilt with concrete. I have difficulty seeing how New Orleans will survive just the rush of water from the melt, without a dam bursting.
  5. Diane

    We live in Logan, IA and near by areas are being flooded, our interstate system is gone from Missouri Valley to CB and Omaha. The Corps are letting massive amounts out these Dams all six of them and it is terrifying. The possibility of one of them failing would be disastrous! We sit here wondering if it did happan how long would we have to escape? Where would be the safest place to head to? We figure North east. Any ideas?
    • admin

      Diane, I share your concerns. I have many friends and family members also in harms way. The safest direction to head in case of a disaster is away from the river and towards higher ground. I wish you the best, Tom
  6. Steve

    Would someone please kindly remind the Corp of Engineers that no one thought a plane could take down a Trade Center tower? No one thought an ice berg could take down the Titanic. Thank you.
  7. Midwestkid

    the threat of all this is very real, especially given the situation on the missouri river at this time, I do have one point to argue here tho, if for any reason the fort peck dam should fail there would be absolutely no chance that any dam down river will be able to contain the rush of water and the destruction listed here is nothing compared to what our real life scenario will be like, so let everyone be aware we need to pray that this never ever happens
  8. Whitney

    I live in Glasgow, MT, which is 15 miles from Fort Peck. The fact that so many people are causing unnecessary panic referring to the fact that, to quote Ashlee earlier, ‘Fort Peck is a hydraulic dam and was not built to hold this amount of water’ is completely false. The fact is that Fort Peck Lake is currently (as of June 27, 2011) 14,788,340 acre-feet below capacity. Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota is the reservoir next in line, and it’s currently 18,102,545 acre-feet below capacity. If there were to be a breach of Fort Peck Dam, between the friction caused over the 200+ river miles between Fort Peck and Williston, ND and the fact that the Garrison Dam can contain an additional 3,314,205 acre-feet of water more than what Fort Peck Lake is currently holding, there would not be any issues in New Orleans, as Elvie suggested. The reasons why the Corps of Engineers did not release water from the spillway earlier are numerous, but here are a few: 1) the purpose of Fort Peck Lake is to create down pressure for the diversion tunnels which spin turbines within the Powerhouses; there is no suction. Therefore, the more water, the more water pressure, the faster the turbines spin, the more electricity is generated. (After the release of water in 1997, the amount of water left within the lake was not adequate to generate enough electricity to meet the Corps quotas. Because of this and the corresponding drought that lasted 10 years, the Corps is much more careful about the release of water from Fort Peck Lake.) 2) Montana is a large state with a small population. The release of water is controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers, a government agency. During the nearly 20 years of drought suffered in Northeast Montana, water was continuously released from Fort Peck Lake through the diversion tunnels, further stressing the flood conditions. Montana currently has two Senators and one Representative, as compared to Nebraska’s two Senators and three Representatives and Missouri’s two Senators and nine Representatives; we don’t command enough votes to regularly make a difference in any governmental decisions to release or retain water in Fort Peck Lake. The fact of the matter is, although Fort Peck Lake is at record setting high levels, it’s far from being dangerous. What people need to understand is that Northeast Montana is a dry place! We had a long, cold and wet winter in 2010 and 2011 which caused record setting runoff. Record highs in a place that’s usually arid are not comparable to record highs in areas that command more than an average of 11” per year (which is Montana’s average rainfall). Currently, Glasgow (and the surrounding area) has had a total of 17.65” of precipitation since January, and we’re only halfway through the year! In conclusion, it’s been a wet year! Although I feel for those towns and cities affected by the flood waters (which includes Glasgow; we’ve had three straight months of severe flooding conditions here, too), the Corps of Engineers is not to blame, Mother Nature is! There is nothing to fear concerning Fort Peck Lake, dam or spillway.
    • admin

      Whitney, Thanks for putting it in perspective. I realize there are many, many layers of safety built into the design, and only the most extraordinary of circumstances could cause a failure. That said, the true failure is not in what it is designed to do, but in what it wasn't designed to do. And the people who currently live inside the flooded areas can attest to the limitations. If the dams, which were originally sold as great tools for flood control, failed on one account, I don't think its unreasonable for people to speculate on other limitations as well. Tom
  9. Thomas Wells

    It is hardly comforting that a large area containing farm land, cities, industries, nuclear plants, nuclear missiles, oil refineries, chemical plants sewer and water facilities, transportation, electricity, etc. is "protected" from going into the gulf of Mexico by a few dirt bumps.
  10. chuck

    Tom, part of that "failure" in terms of flood control should be laid directly at the feet of the Grebens who want nothing more than for the river to be "controlled" as if the dams weren't there. The CoE has their hands tied in terms of their goals....
  11. Whitney

    Tom; Although I realize that the possibility of Fort Peck Dam to fail is a legitimate fear, I must agree to disagree with you. Retaining water is exactly what Fort Peck Dam is designed to do. Since I was a little kid, I've been told by my grandparents, school teachers, and family friends about the structure of the dam. The internal design of this 'dirt bump', as Thomas called it, is extremely sophisicated. The interior is designed to be at its strongest when there is water pressure behind it. This is accomplished through various means, one is the granite footing placed on the dry side to act as a solid base for the granite within the dam when there is strong water pressure on the water side. The numerous dams along the Missouri river were also not 'sold as great tools for flood control', they were & are primarily a means of creating electricity (for those that have an adjoining hydroelectric facility) and more importantly, creating a source of irrigation for the hundreds of thousands of farms located along the banks of the Missouri. What is happening this year has happened for hundreds of years.. and once again, although I feel for those affected by the flooding, most of the major flooding happening is occuring in towns and cities with poorly designed flood control systems. Montana and North Dakota have been getting a very bad reputation with all the news focusing on the problems caused by the release of large amounts of water... a bad reputation in a state that has such a small population destroys the tourism industry.. which is a sad thing. Although I appreciate you creativity, Tom, I don't appreciate the bad reputation created for my beautiful state.
  12. michele

    I grew up on Fort Peck lake and there's a few things wrong with your story. I believe you're talking about an explosion near the spillway there are backup gates that can be maneuvered in place to stop the flow of water. a few years ago the spillway was bone dry due to a drought so you're not going to get the volume of water that you for trying to make a hole in the actual damn you need more than two rowboats more like 200. the interior of the dam has steel plating driven down to the bedrock then it was covered with earth. because millions of years ago we were a shallow inland sea the dirt around here is hard pack clay. Then you have the layer of granite boulders the size of lazy boy rocking chairs. so yeah not going to happen.

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