Turning the tide in flood control
In 1997, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Washington, D.C., introduced Project Impact, a community-based program to enhance local efforts at disaster mitigation. “Project Impact seeks to change the way America deals with disasters,” according to FEMA. “The goal is to reduce the personal and economic costs of disasters by bringing together community leaders, citizens and businesses to prepare for and protect themselves against the ravages of nature.”
In its program, FEMA promotes a four-step approach to building a disaster-resistant community: building community partnerships, assessing risks, prioritizing needs, and building support and communicating. Although the steps are not recommended exclusively for flood control (after all, “disaster” can mean any number of things, from flood and tornado to fire and earthquake), many local governments have adopted them for just that purpose.
The following case studies demonstrate Project Impact in action. Each of the communities examined has a long history of flood-related problems. All have followed the Project Impact model to enhance existing stormwater and floodplain management programs, and they have strengthened their capabilities for preparedness, flood control and recovery.
Partnerships for loss prevention: Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, N.C. In Charlotte, N.C., city and county agencies have joined to spearhead the area’s risk assessment and loss prevention programs. “We are deeply committed to investing in partnerships and planning to prevent future disaster losses,” says Dave Canaan, stormwater manager for Mecklenburg County.
Even though Charlotte is 200 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, the threat of hurricaneand flood damage is severe. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo’s 80-mile-per-hour winds and floods caused $1 billion damage to the city. Additionally, in the summers of 1995 and 1997, 100-year rainstorms flooded hundreds of homes and businesses in the area..
Charlotte is the largest city in the Carolinas, with a metropolitan population of 1.2 million. It is headquarters to major national financial institutions including NationsBank and First Union Bank, and, because of that, business disruptions can have serious implications, reaching far beyond the city limits.
To manage its floodplain and stormwater efforts, the city joined with Mecklenburg County to form Charlotte-Mecklenburg Stormwater Services in 1994. The partnership combines previously independent city and county programs and operates with an annual budget exceeding $31 million.
Much of its work has focused on information gathering. For example, the organization is taking digital photos of culverts and other stormwater management facilities, and it is assessing the community’s ability to handle a major flood event.
“By assessing potential flood damage, we can prioritize infrastructure improvements and reduce the threats posed by severe storms,” Canaan says. “We also hold regular public meetings and have direct correspondence with residents to explain why their properties flood and what can be done to protect their homes and businesses in the future. This dialogue with the residents themselves leads to the development of alternatives for mitigating future losses.”
In addition to conducting its research and education efforts, the partnership is exploring other projects for future implementation. For example, it would like to develop a system for radio transmission of rainfall runoff data to give emergency managers real-time information during a flood.
Unlike many local governments, those of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have a strong network of regional resources and potential partnerships for floodplain planning and flood mitigation. They are affiliated with the Contingency Planning Association of the Carolinas (CPAC), which was formed in 1987 to study and reduce vulnerability to disaster throughout the Carolinas. “This organization really puts us ahead of many communities in our disaster planning and prevention work,” Canaan says.
CPAC is a forum of business and government leaders that, through idea exchange, has amassed information on contingency planning and disaster recovery. For the past two years, the association has been analyzing the region’s vulnerability to disaster, setting priorities for mitigation projects and planning responses to potential disasters.
In addition to providing a statewide disaster network, CPAC is training contingency planners. Last August, 28 people, including individuals from banks, small businesses, and local and federal government, attended a two-day training seminar. “Our goal was to provide high-level training locally, so that companies and agencies with limited travel budgets could take advantage of this opportunity,” says Phil Drake, CPAC program director. He adds that, last December, more than 100 government and business leaders attended a symposium to stimulate public-private cooperation in disaster mitigation.
Because CPAC has developed a successful model of partnership at the state level, Charlotte has been able to build strong ties with the city’s private sector, Canaan says. “Regardless of federal funding, we are committed to working together to systematically analyze risks and develop alternatives to improve disaster resistance,” he notes. “We believe in investing in doing things the right way to prevent future losses.”
Moving them out of harm’s way: Tulsa, Okla. As if Tulsa, Okla.’s location in “Tornado Alley” were not enough to batter its image, the city has been tagged the Flood Capital of the United States. By 1980, as a result of repeated flooding, the federal government had declared Tulsa a disaster area nine times in 15 years.
Its worst disaster was yet to come. On Memorial Day 1984, a flash flood killed 14 Tulsans and injured 288, leaving thousands homeless and causing $188 million in damage to nearly 7,000 buildings.
Since then, Tulsa leaders, determined to protect the city’s 743,000 citizens and erase the city’s “flood capital” status, have reorganized the city’s stormwater drainage and flood control efforts. As part of that process, the city’s stormwater program was incorporated into Public Works and funded through a city-wide stormwater utility fee.
“Since everybody in Tulsa contributes runoff to the drainage system, everybody pays the utility fee,” says Ann Patton, community affairs manager for Public Works. “Each single-family residence is charged $3.16 per month, and business owners pay that amount for every 2,650 square feet of impervious surface on their properties. Thus, each property owner fairly contributes to stormwater management costs based on how much runoff his or her property generates.”
The stormwater fee yields about $10.5 million in annual revenue, and 60 percent of that is used to fund drainage system maintenance. The balance is used to pay for program management.
“With minor exceptions, stormwater fee revenue is not used for capital projects,” Patton says. “Instead, Tulsa uses local sales tax revenue, general obligation bonds and federal funds, when they are available, for flood control projects.”
Tulsa’s balance sheet demonstrates that flood mitigation is a high priority. “Since 1984, Tulsans have spent more than $125 million in local city funds for major capital flood works,” Patton says. Additionally, more than $75 million has been provided by the federal government (primarily through FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), and the stormwater fees have garnered more than $100 million to reduce flooding problems. Funds paid by property owners to construct or retrofit buildings according to flood regulations have not been tracked, Patton notes.
Much of the money has been used to purchase property within the floodplain, which constitutes 10 to 15 percent of Tulsa. Since 1984, the city has acquired nearly 1,000 residences and demolished or moved the structures. “Floodplain clearance is an ongoing program, both before and after floods,” says Patton. “We believe it is the best way [to prevent future damage] when feasible.”
In addition to clearing flood-prone structures from the floodplain, Tulsa has completed a $140 million project to construct 10 miles of channels along Mingo Creek and its tributaries and to add 23 floodwater detention sites to the area. Last September, Tulsa received 4 to 6 inches of rainfall – near the magnitude of the 100-year flood event – and the flood control projects proved capable of preventing major damage in areas that were devastated in 1984.
As properties have been cleared, the city has transformed portions of the floodplain into recreational space and natural preserves. For example, stormwater detention basins, which are dry except during floods, are used as soccer fields, while maintenance lanes along channels are used as hiking and biking trails.
Tulsa also has initiated public information, education and awareness campaigns. Flood hazard information is disclosed to home buyers and renters, and the city periodically mails notices to residents in flood-prone areas, warning them of hazards; offering flood preparedness tips; and urging them to buy flood insurance. In addition, Tulsa holds public information sessions, distributes brochures and videos, uses roadway signs and makes individual contacts to ensure that residents are aware of flood risk.
Floodplain management and public education are making Tulsa more disaster-resistant, but the city is looking for additional armor. A committee headed by Mike McCool, director for the Tulsa Area Emergency Management Agency, is investigating the possibilities of building a disaster-resistant house.
Although there are no proposed plans for the project, the model house would be built by volunteers and incorporate disaster-resistant features such as roof clips, a hardened interior “safe room,” a hail-resistant roof, shatter-resistant glass, smoke alarms, sprinklers and exterior clear zones. A family su rvival kit, complete with emergency rations and appropriate medical supplies, also would be included.
As ideas for the disaster-resistant house are gathered, another committee is investigating methods for flood-proofing businesses. Chaired by Tulsa Stormwater Engineer Dale Reynolds and Joe Remondini, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers floodplain management chief for the Tulsa District, the committee plans to use flood wall construction to flood-proof a building already located in the floodplain. The completed building would be used to educate business owners.
“We will flood again,” Patton states. “But we strongly believe that local communities must accept responsibility for solving their problems, and we have come a very long way.”
Rising to the challenge: Freeport, N.Y. For some communities, relocating homes and businesses is not a feasible answer to damage control. Such is the case in Freeport, N.Y., on the south shore of Long Island. “Freeport was originally built on marshland by bay fishermen,” says Lou DiGrazia, superintendent of public works for the village. “They wanted to be right on the water, and, if that water flowed in their front door and out their back door every so often, they didn’t mind so much. They had their waders on anyway and were heading out to fish.”
Today, 45,000 citizens live within a 5-square-mile area that is repeatedly hammered by hurricanes, nor’easters and back bay flooding. “Actually, tidal flooding is even more of a problem than major storms,” DiGrazia says. “We have half a dozen streets that flood with the moon tides, which means they can be underwater two or three times a month. Even a regular rainstorm [during high tide periods] can mean several inches of standing water in the streets.”
“This whole town is built in the floodplain,” adds Joe Madigan, superintendent of buildings for Freeport. “There is nowhere else to put people, and the price of Long Island real estate is so high that buying out homeowners is out of the question.”
The next best option is to elevate existing structures, Madigan says. “We [have begun elevating residences,] and we will soon elevate several miles of streets, including the Nautical Mile, which is home to charter fishing boats and many shops and seafood restaurants,” he says. “We need to protect our economic base by preventing damage to our central business district.”
Elevation of the Nautical Mile is a $5.5 million project, due for completion in Spring 2000. The village has received $1.2 million in state/federal grants for that work, and, depending on the availability of future grants, it intends to raise 21 additional streets. As Freeport gradually raises its streets, the process will leave surrounding homes below grade. Although drainage systems help control the flooding, the residences must eventually be lifted. “We’ve already elevated 30 residences (to 3 feet above base flood elevation),” Madigan explains, adding that the residential work was funded by FEMA grants totaling $890,000 and by homeowners who contributed 25 percent of the cost. The elevation problem is not limited to private residences, Madigan notes. “Our public works yard, where they fuel up vehicles, is right on the water and floods [during high tide events],” he says.
“I get water in my office,” DiGrazia adds. “But there really isn’t anywhere else we can locate our facility. It’s just a gradual and very expensive process of raising streets and buildings.” He estimates that elevating a street costs $300 per foot.
In addition to elevating structures, Freeport has established a disaster-resistance team with a full-time emergency manager to run its mitigation programs. Five subcommittees – Public Awareness; Commercial/Industrial Partners; Bulkheads; Retrofitting Residential Structures; and Infrastructure – have been formed.
The team has begun assessing waterfront bulkheads, many of which are rotting and do not meet the village’s requirement that bulkheads rise 7 feet above sea level. Officials are urging residents to bring their bulkheads up to code, replace them where necessary and use pressure-treated material for the piles, deadman and walers. Additionally, they are recommending the use of vinyl sheathing, which is resistant to shipworms and will extend the lives of the bulkheads. Compliance is voluntary, and property owners are paying the full cost of the improvements.
Freeport’s residents and business owners are supportive of the village’s steps to prevent flood damage, despite the fact that the process is disruptive and costly. “This is where I want to be, and the work will pay off in the future,” says one homeowner. “When you grow up here, you get used to the flooding,” Madigan says. “But, now that there is some hope to prevent repeated damage, people are getting very excited.”
Julia Johnson is a freelance writer in Wellsboro, Pa. For more information about Project Impact, contact FEMA at (202) 646-4600, or visit the agency’s web site at www.fema.gov.
It all started as a bake sale. In the West Virginia counties of Randolph and Tucker, the communities’ Project Impact efforts can be traced back to the determination of three senior residents – Katie Little, Arbutis Wilson and Hazel Phillips – who, after witnessing the counties’ severe floods for years, decided to take action. With the help of their friends and neighbors, the three spearheaded a fundraising campaign to raise money for flood walls, streambank stabilization and streambed clearing.
Their determination caught on. In just one year, residents of the rural area – with a combined population of just over 35,000 and a median household income of $23,000 – had raised nearly $50,000 for flood control projects. They went on to leverage city, county and state funds, as well as a $2 million grant from the Economic Development Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“The Concerned Citizens Coalition has been tremendous, and it has effectively roused public interest,” says Tom Tuesing, Tucker County administrator. “They began work on a flood wall in Parsons during the summer of 1996. When grant money came through in April 1997, the Tucker County Commission then assumed work on the project.
“We’ve used about $1.3 million so far on the Parsons flood wall, bank stabilization in Hendricks and stream bank stabilization throughout Tucker County,” Tuesing explains. He adds that the Randolph-Tucker Partnership is in the process of setting priorities and planning future flood-related projects. Already, several public-private partnerships have been formed, and local businesses are working cooperatively
to encourage disaster preparedness. For example, the local Elkins Building Supply offers discounts on materials as well as instruction on retrofitting homes to minimize flood damage. Citizens National Bank has made low-interest home improvement loans, and the Randolph County Vocational Technical Center has incorporated retrofit methods into its curriculum and developed three-dimensional models for display at the building supply store.
To enhance their planning and educational efforts, Randolph County commissioners enlisted the help of Michael Baker, a Pittsburgh-based consulting engineering firm, to develop GIS maps for the county’s public meetings. The firm was able to compile demographic data and FEMA’s digital floodplain mapping, and overlay the information on recognizable base maps. The resulting maps clearly showed which areas of the county were in high-risk floodplains and helped residents understand the flooding dangers in their neighborhoods.
Last June, to gain further public support for disaster mitigation, the county Project Impact team, with the support of FEMA, staged a local exposition that featured informational displays for homeowners. It offered information regarding flood-proofing and funding for residential improvements, and it also provided workshops and discussion groups on assessing the vulnerability of homes and businesses to natural disaster, home improvement forflood resistance, home improvement funding, flood insurance and safety. While some of the information was geared toward the public, other workshops were designed for local emergency management officials. FEMA demonstrated its HAZUS risk assessment software, which can be used to quantify a community’s vulnerability to disaster and assist in setting priorities.
Disaster resistance may seem like it is out of reach for rural and low income areas, but Tucker and Randolph counties have proven that it is the combined spirits of individual responsibility along with community teamwork that really make improvements happen.