How can flood damage be reduced the next time waters rise?

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March 13, 2012

"You can see behind me the flood waters ripped through the asphalt on the sidewalk and just across the street, the foundation from this house is nearly gone."


This WBNG news clip from 2006 could have just as easily been from Tropical Storm Lee last year. For some, the 2006 flood was a wake-up call. Lourdes Hospital was one of them.

After the 2006 flood caused severe damage, they built a new flood wall to protect the hospital from the nearby river. And they took precautions against flooding inside the building, according to one of the project's engineers, Rick Woidt.

"Dual stormwater pumps, back-up generator power, so there¿s quite a bit that goes into a successful flood protection project."

Woidt says this project cost about 8 million dollars. Another one he worked on after 2006, at Union Endicott High School, cost about 4 million dollars.

That's about twelve million dollars just to protect two structures.

William Nechamen, the chief of floodplain management at the Department of Environmental Conservation, says it's not practical to put those kinds of systems across the whole Southern Tier.

"While there are certain things you can do to try to engineer against the flood, it's impossible to prevent all flooding so people need to look at where they build, how they build."

The Army Corps of Engineers tried to prevent flooding in the region by constructing flood walls and levees in the 40s and 50s. Almost all are now considered too small to protect the structures behind them.

Nechamen says that system of levees might not be worth upgrading.

"Everything is feasible if you spend enough money on it but it's not a simple matter to just build a levee higher, it's really a reconstruction."

And that kind of reconstruction is unlikely to happen because it's so expensive. What the federal government is offering is to buyout homeowners with flood insurance, to make sure no one builds there in the future. Other homeowners have the option of putting their homes on stilts, lifting the house off the ground so they stay above the flood level.

"Maybe that's the best thing, getting people out of harm's way. What if nobody is living where the flood is? Was there really a flood?"

Chip McElwee, executive director at the Broome County Soil and Water Conservation District, focuses on streams that feed the river, mainly the Susquehanna. But he says there aren¿t enough resources to fix the big things that need fixing.

"There's no money capitalizing this program now, it's government, there's no money anywhere."

Instead McElwee's office clears debris here, reinforces a stream bank there, in the hopes of minimizing future damage.

"It's more a plan to reduce impacts of future flooding. I think that"s all we can hope for. There will be bigger floods, hopefully not in my lifetime or your lifetime but at some time you know there will be the storm that surpasses this one."

McElwee's office completed its last big project to contain floodwaters in 1994 , that funding stream has since dried up. It has about ten smaller projects underway now, but he says there are at least 100 others that need attention.