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Hurricanes…In Ohio?

Written By: Julie Lawson, P.E., CFM, Senior Project Engineer

We are amid a catastrophic hurricane season. As a Certified Floodplain Manager, I am awed by the unimaginable flooding caused by the storms. As a human, my heart aches learning about the deaths, damage, and years of rebuilding that result. As a professional engineer, I am determined to do something about it.

We don’t think about hurricanes in Ohio very often, but it was just five years ago that Hurricane Sandy caused $17 million in damage in Cuyahoga County with wind gusts topping out at 68 mph causing waves in Lake Erie to reach up to 20 feet high. I don’t know how this year’s devastating hurricanes will impact Ohio. Unfortunately, I do know that Ohio communities are vulnerable to flooding with or without hurricane remnants. I have studied Ohio watersheds for nearly 20 years to help find solutions to relieve the magnitude of the damage due to flooding issues. I have seen Ohio communities submerged, resulting in public safety hazards and severe damage to infrastructure. I have been to public meetings listening to residents tell me about their heartbreaking personal stories of flooding and the financial and emotional loss that comes with the high water, and I am determined to do something about it.

Below are some thoughts on what your community can do to reduce flooding. Flooding can occur during smaller storms or can result from more intense storms like we have seen and some have experienced in recent weeks. Either way, flooding is relevant here in our own communities and we can take steps to reduce flood risk.

Lake Erie by the E. 55th Street Marina during Hurricane Sandy, October 30, 2012 (Photo credit – Marvin Fong, The Plain Dealer)

I believe the top priority is to manage the assets that communities already have. There are many ways to do this.

  1. We brush and floss our teeth to prevent cavities. We need to maintain our infrastructure too. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Have a regular inspection program to evaluate your assets. Clean debris from pipes, culverts and streams so that smaller storm events don’t become amplified by obstructions.

    Storm drain showing lack of maintenance
  2. If your community participates in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) make sure that your Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) are up-to-date and your floodplain management ordinances or regulations are in compliance with national and state requirements. Even if FEMA has issued an updated county FIRM that includes your community, the Special Flood Hazard Areas may be incorrect. Review and update your maps so that your community understands its risks. The Ohio Floodplain Management Association (OFMA) also provides great resources and training opportunities for communities.
  3. If you own a dam regulated by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), make sure that you have an approved Operation, Maintenance and Inspection (OMI) manual and Emergency Action Plan (EAP) in place. Address items identified in your Dam Safety Inspection Report. ODNR has some good dam information on their website. Dam failure due to flooding could be disastrous, leading to more expansive and severe losses.
  4. Educate the community. Private dam owners may be unaware of their responsibilities, putting the public at risk. Residents and businesses may not realize they are in a flood prone area and should have flood insurance, whether mandated or not. Inform property owners that keeping a stream clear of debris on their property is their responsibility. Let your community know about ways to dry floodproof their residence or business  so they can minimize flooding damage.
  5. Have a plan in place ahead of the flood so that swift action can be taken in the event of a flood. Coordinate with other departments, first responders, your county Emergency Management Agency (EMA), and the Ohio EMA. Close roadways that are likely to flood when the forecast calls for it. Have a communication system in place with residents so they know where to turn when there is a flooding threat.

    Road closed due to high waters – (Photo credit – Cape Style Magazine)

I also think that it’s imperative that communities are proactive rather than reactive. Here are some ways to plan to mitigate future flooding.

  1. Review your community’s ordinances regarding development and stormwater detention requirements. Your community may decide to have higher standards than the minimum requirements set forth by the State. Also keep in mind that many ordinances were passed before disconnecting downspouts, installing rain barrels and other green infrastructure proved to be beneficial.
  2. Create a comprehensive plan for your community. Depending on the size of your community, departments could have different goals. But those goals can be realized in a unified way that compliments goals of other departments. If a bridge or culvert needs repairs due to structural issues, there could be an opportunity to mitigate flooding too. If a roadway needs replacement, opportunities for green infrastructure in the right of way could be explored. Even simple parking lots offer a chance to implement green infrastructure and help reduce flooding. There is only one way to eat an elephant – one bite at a time. Similarly, smaller flood control or green infrastructure projects can be incorporated into other projects at a small scale and eventually will add up to a big impact.

    green infrastructure
    Akron General Hospital Wellness Center green infrastructure implementation
  3. Identify repetitive loss properties (any insurable building for which two or more claims of more than $1,000 were paid by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) within any rolling ten-year period, since 1978), and consider alternatives to mitigate the flooding. One option is to purchase the property and allow it to be green space that is expected to flood. FEMA offers grants for some of these projects. Even better than removing a home and replacing the impervious area with a mowed lawn, consider implementing green infrastructure on the lot to gain even more benefit from acquiring the space, as was done on the photo below.

    rain garden
    Cuyahoga Falls rain garden reserve paid by FEMA
  4. Go green or go home. Aside from the functionality of green infrastructure to reduce flooding by protecting, restoring, or mimicking the natural water cycle, it can also be a beautiful asset to a community and provide co-benefits such as habitat and water quality benefits. Parks can be created around green infrastructure and opportunities to educate the public can be put into place. Green infrastructure can include downspout disconnection, rainwater harvesting, rain gardens, planter boxes, bioswales, permeable pavements, green streets and alleys, green parking, green roofs, urban tree canopy or land conservation. There are plenty of opportunities to fit green infrastructure projects into your community.

    City of Fairlawn Oxbow Wetland
  5. Enhance your floodplains and provide more storage. Make sure that your streams have good connectivity to their floodplains and can function properly. You can also add detention or storage to reduce peak flow rates in streams. One unique design that we have employed is an oxbow wetland, which takes flood flows laterally from the stream and stores the water offline until the storm passes. Then, the offline storage can return to the channel once the threat of flooding has passed. This type of project can be easier for permitting and be just as effective.

    City of Fairlawn Oxbow Wetland drone view

In conclusion…

Flooding is a concern for everyone, and while the recent devastation in Florida and Texas have been profound for everyone, having a proactive plan in each community can help minimize the effects of flooding when it occurs. Ohio receives significant damage from flooding and even smaller floods can cause residents or businesses to endure risks to their lives and property, and I am determined to do something about it.

Learn more about stormwater management and green infrastructure measures to prevent flooding.


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