Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

Local News

April 20, 2014

Counties move forward with flood mitigation one year later

One by one, properties were bulldozed from the neighborhood between Carter and Murden streets in downtown Kokomo, physically erasing evidence of residential flooding in an area long prone to it.

Removing homes along Park Avenue, near Waterworks Park and other spots around the city and beyond is the most noticeable change to the landscape in the city’s flood mitigation effort thus far.

The city has spent more than $600,000 in the past year purchasing and tearing down 53 properties alongside Wildcat Creek. A heavy concentration of that effort has been along Carter and Murden streets, between Apperson Way and Union Street, where homes have long been prone to devastating flooding.

The city also is in the process of acquiring an additional 55 flood-damaged properties for $500 apiece, those located near the old Continental Steel Superfund site, after they were purchased in a special commissioners’ tax certificate sale in December.

These purchases are the most visible aspects of the city’s flood mitigation plan, which has been in the works since a April 19, 2013, flood destroyed seven homes and caused major damage to another 165 in Howard County. On that day, the Wildcat Creek reached its highest crest on record at 18.69 feet.

“It was evident from the beginning that it was not a great place for residential housing,” city special projects manager David Tharp said, referring to the Carter-Murden neighborhood after going door to door with members of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the days following the flood. “It’s the first and worst of what gets hit. Even though we don’t know what the whole picture will look like [following mitigation], you know that’s an area that needs to change its use.”

Changing the use of land is essentially what flood mitigation is all about, Tharp said. So while the beginning stages of mitigation present the most obvious fixes to flooding, the rest of the process isn’t quite as fluid.

Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight said the city is in the process of finding the best way to reuse the land in the Carter-Murden area.

It could become a park, Goodnight said, but with Foster Park and Future Park located nearby, that seems unlikely. Retention and detention areas also remain a possibility as the city continues to make plans.

“You’re talking about shifting parts of the earth around to find [solutions],” Goodnight said. “We’re looking at potential reuse for that. There are two options for that space, and we’ll have an answer in the next month. It does need to be repurposed, though.”

The city also continues to examine how to improve water conveyance in and around Wildcat Creek. A major focus over the next couple of years will be on improving impediments in water flow by widening the channel of the creek. Banks that are more straight up and down could be tiered to create greater water capacity.

Nowhere was that lack of conveyance more evident than behind McKinley Alternative School on West Carter Street, where the city recently removed a restrictive dam.

“It slowed the water down and caused it to pool up around there,” Tharp said. “There are already small, fast steps we can take that are going to be a part of the larger picture.”

Before any change to the creek’s conveyance is implemented, he said, the city needs to find a way to fund it. FEMA’s denial of assistance following the flood has made that more difficult.

The city spent $550,000 in the weeks following the flood, with most of the expenses going toward public safety and cleanup expenses, including police and fire overtime, cleanup of dirt and silt and extra tipping fees for trash removal. Goodnight said the city has estimated  homeowners and businesses incurred approximately $12 million in damages.

Another factor stunting progress is FEMA’s pending approval of Howard County’s Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan, which provides the state with its plans in the event of emergencies such as flooding, tornadoes, earthquakes, dam failures, chemical spills and even terrorist attacks.

The state is yet to approve the plan, preventing the city and county from applying for a number of flood mitigation-related grants.

“We’re kind of at a roadblock right now,” Kokomo/Howard County Plan Director Greg Sheline said. “The plan is intended for us to go through and put our stamp on where we think the biggest issues are for the community, which for us, has been flooding, tornadoes and snow events. FEMA’s job is to provide risk assessments and try to identify what the biggest risks are. They would then bring back some mitigation efforts they think would work for our area.”

Finding solutions in Tipton

Tipton County also was hit hard during the April flood. There four homes were destroyed, while 51 others suffered major damage, according to figures submitted to the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. An additional 72 homes suffered minor damage and 132 properties were affected in some way. At one point, 150 people were displaced.

In the past year, the Big Cicero Creek Joint Drainage Board has discussed increasing the assessment for property owners. The money would help mitigate flooding by creating a bypass channel south of Tipton.

The board’s actions will be will affect future flooding in a four-county area including Tipton, Hamilton, and Boone and Clinton counties. Several proposals costing from $1.7 million to $33 million for a bypass channel project have been mulled by the board, with the latter proposal drawing considerable interest.

The $33 million price tag is steep, Tipton County Surveyor Jason Henderson said, but would solve all of the county’s flooding problems. It would, however, need federal money to become a reality. Property owner cost estimates range from $3,000 to $5,000 per property owner each year for five years to complete the bypass.

The board is looking into a fee increase for property owners, which currently is a minimum of $8 and is 90 cents per acre for farm owners. Since the rate has not been increased since 1991, the board has discussed raising the minimum assessment to $25 or $30 while increasing the acreage fee to $5 or $10 per acre.

“This project would solve the entire flooding problem,” Henderson said. “There’s no way I can see the drainage board having a hearing to levy those types of assessments. The thinking would be to do all of the other steps and work toward the end goal of a bypass, going to the Legislature with a plan to possibly get a 75 percent [federal] match.”

The difference between being assessed at $5 and $10 an acre, Henderson said, might boil down to whether farm owners are willing to plant cover crops on their land that would specialize in retaining water to prevent runoff.

“There are ways to incentivize [cover crops] by decreasing the farmer’s cost per acre,” he said. “There also is the possibility of receiving soil water conservation grants, but a lot of farmers don’t like to be told what to do with their land.”

A cover crop, which is not harvested, is designed to store 25,000 gallons of water for each 1 percent of organic material planted per acre. The drainage board could have a hearing on a rate increase by October, Henderson said.

Henderson noted another option discussed in the past year has been building two-stage ditches where ditches are widened to hold more water instead of channeling into Cicero Creek.

Tipton Mayor Don Havens said whichever proposal the board chooses, he anticipates the project will require state or federal dollars.

“There are multiple options being considered,” he said. “I hope the option chosen does eliminate most, if not all, of the flooding in the area. We just don’t have enough info yet to know which proposal or project will be preferred.”

FEMA awarded the city of Tipton $672,000 to help it acquire and demolish 13 homes in a special flood hazard area impacted in April’s flood.

With a local match of $224,000, the city’s flood remediation project could spend up to $900,000 buying and demolishing the properties. The majority of the homes are located in an area bounded by Madison, Conde, Adams and Third streets.

Havens said the city is still waiting on the state’s department of homeland security to sign off on the project, but expects the homes to be razed sometime in the middle to late fall this year.

“That’s an important item, because many of these properties are abandoned and it’s been a real economic hardship for the folks that have to deal with that on top of living elsewhere,” he said.

Martin Slagter can be reached at 765-454-8570, martin.slagter@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @slagterm.

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