Failure

Clickbait Headlines

by Don Friedman on January 19, 2018


The failure of the spillway at the Oroville Dam in California was a big story last year. The spillway failure had the potential to cause an overall failure of the dam, which would have been catastrophic. Emergency measures to lower the water behind the dam and repair the spillway worked, and a disaster was averted.

As part of good engineering practice, the state ordered a forensic study of the failure, its causes, and ways to minimize the risk of similar failures. That report is comprehensive and available to the public. As is often true in situations like this, the report does not identify a single cause for the problem. Rather, it begins with:

The Oroville Dam spillway incident was caused by a long-term systemic failure of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), regulatory, and general industry practices to recognize and address inherent spillway design and construction weaknesses, poor bedrock quality, and deteriorated service spillway chute conditions. The incident cannot reasonably be “blamed” mainly on any one individual, group, or organization.

Over 500 pages of detail follow that statement. So far, so good. I haven’t read every word of the report yet, but I have no reason to believe that it doesn’t address the problems that led to the failure.

I learned that the report was available online from this article: Failed Oroville Dam Spillway designed by inexperienced grad student in the 1960s. That headline is frankly, garbage. A little further into the article, comes the statement: “The principal designer of the spillway told the dam-safety team that he had just completed post-graduate work at the time he worked on the Oroville project decades ago, had had no previous engineering employment beyond two summer stints, and had never designed a spillway before.” So the designer was not a grad student at the time, but rather a full-time employee of the DWR with a graduate degree. Unless the agency operated in a different manner than every other engineering organization in the country, his work would have been reviewed by other engineers at multiple check-points before construction began. The designer wasn’t a grad student and he was part of a group of engineers that designed the dam.

That kind of sensational headline raise fears for no good reason. It’s completely unnecessary to tell the story. Here’s a reasonable article with a reasonable headline: Governor appoints new chief at California’s troubled water agency. Engineering failures are frightening enough, and difficult enough for the average person to understand, without pandering to the worst get-clicks-at-any-cost instincts of the internet.

Common Problems

January 18, 2018

The latest issue of the CROSS (Confidential Reporting on Structural-Safety) newsletter is out and I had a weird feeling of déjà vu while reading it. In the same order as within the newsletter, the topics include: Commentary on the rather grim UK government review of fire safety triggered by the horrific Grenfell Tower fire, Report […]

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Safety Is An Essentially Contested Concept

December 21, 2017

That’s a view of the wreckage of the excursion steamer General Slocum, run aground in the Bronx after burning in the East River. Over 1000 people died during that incident, so I think it’s safe to say the ship was not safe. I recently came across the definition of an essentially contested concept, and I think […]

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The Meaning of Failure

November 27, 2017

Trigger warning: The blog post below includes discussion of death in building failures. Definitions of structural engineering tend to be positive, as they should be. Safely and economically designing structures…that sort of thing. Engineers are, amazingly enough, human and prefer to think about success rather than failures. I’ve been working on a paper for the […]

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Relating Damage To Structural Type

November 22, 2017

Some stereoscopic views of Chicago after the 1871 fire: That’s the kind of devastation that a firestorm can cause. But it’s worth noting that different types of building fail differently. Nearly every building in Chicago before the fire was either of wood-stud construction (private houses and small commercial buildings) or of masonry walls with wood […]

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An Alarming Symptom, Maybe

October 23, 2017

Sometimes issues during an investigation aren’t clear. That picture is the entry to an abandoned church and that’s a really odd crack in the floor. I was there to do the most basic type of conditions assessment – hazard to the public or not? – and since the building was closed to use, the only […]

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Telegraphing Through

October 20, 2017

Another artistic photo, this time of one face of a party wall in a rowhouse. If you look closely (click on the picture to expand it), you’ll see that the plaster is well-adhered to the brick. The plaster didn’t fall off in that one area, it was removed. Why? Because the presence of that long, […]

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This Is Ungood

October 18, 2017

From a few years ago, some rotting wood beams and a failing brick pier. In 1989, I performed a long and difficult site visit to check on a structure I won’t name (confidentiality is still in place, even after all these years) that had to be reviewed once per year. The fellow who had been […]

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Rising To Failure

October 3, 2017

This is the same building as the unlinteled door – it was chock full of bad masonry conditions. The picture above is just to provide some context. I’m interested in the brick pier in the cellar. Here it is in isolation: There are several possible causes for the visible damage, but rising damp is the […]

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All In The Emphasis

October 2, 2017

I find this article in the New York Times about the recent earthquake in Mexico City to be problematic. To be clear, I claim no special knowledge of the quake itself or of Mexico City, but the building process is the same everywhere. To create a building of any significant size, we need a prospective […]

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