Citizens call for creek relief

Published 9:26 pm Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Most of the speakers at a public hearing Monday had this message for the Washington City Council: replace or remove the Charlotte Street bridge to help prevent floodwaters from damaging their homes.

After the hearing, the council took no action regarding the bridge. A decision on the fate of the bridge is expected to come later, possibly when the council meets again March 12.

“I was taught that the role of government is to protect us — our persons and our property,” said Linda Witchell, who lives near Jack’s Creek, which the bridge crosses. “By leaving the Charlotte Street culverts in place, contrary to expert advice, you are knowingly inflicting damage on the very people you are supposed to protect. Why waste our money on studies you just ignore? Why pay professionals for their opinions and then decide that you know better? Saying we came through past storms just fine is an insult to those who didn’t, those of use who stored that excess stormwater, those of us who are still in the process of recovering.”

Witchell, who appeared before the council in September in the wake of Hurricane Irene and told the council she was homeless at that time, had other words for the council.

“On the other hand, if the pumps work and the bottleneck is removed, many of us will be spared from future damage. Shouldn’t that be your highest priority?” she said.

At its Jan. 23 meeting, the council rejected the recommendation of Allen Lewis, the city’s public-works director, to replace the Charlotte Street bridge — or remove it altogether — to improve drainage in the Jack’s Creek basin.

Lewis told the council that without replacing the existing culverts or tearing down the bridge, ongoing efforts to improve drainage farther upstream in Jack’s Creek would go “for naught.” He said the Charlotte Street bridge becomes a bottleneck when Jack’s Creek is swollen with stormwater runoff and/or floodwaters. He warned that bottleneck, during a major rainfall or hurricane, could result in significant flooding of properties adjacent to Jack’s Creek.

“Long story short, one of two things have got to take place, in my mind anyway from an engineering standpoint. We need to either replace the culverts underneath Charlotte Street, which is going to run you in the neighborhood of $800,000 to a million dollars, or take them out and open the creek up,” Lewis said then.

Mayor Archie Jennings questioned the need to do anything with the Charlotte Street bridge at present or in the near future.

“Wouldn’t it be just as reasonable while Charlotte Street is still a viable bridge to continue using it as is and address either the replacement of Charlotte Street or the taking out of Charlotte Street when it’s no longer a functioning bridge?” Jennings said then. “In other words, should we be in a big hurry to tear out a bridge that’s still working?”

“You’re one significant storm away from having flooding issues because of the Charlotte Street culverts being undersized,” Lewis replied.

The three 60-inch-diameter culverts (corrugated metal pipes) installed under the Charlotte Street bridge years ago are inadequate when it comes to handling the increased stormwater runoff in Washington, Lewis told the council at the Jan. 23 meeting. Those aging, round culverts should be replaced with four 8-foot-by-80-foot box culverts to better handle stormwater runoff and floodwaters, Lewis said.

Derik Davis, who lives at 316 N. Charlotte Street, also urged the council to act on the matter.

“I do think you need to consider the removal of the Charlotte Street culverts to further assist in the drainage issue,” Davis said. “This is not a new issue before you. In fact, there was a study done in 2007 by Rivers & Associates.”

Davis quoted from that study.

“And I quote: ‘Within the Jack’s Creek area, improvements should begin downstream at Charlotte Street and Brown Street before most upstream improvements are made. Upstream maintenance of the existing storm drainage system would alleviate some problems with the localized street flooding.’ Not only has Charlotte Street not been addressed, but there have been upstream improvements that have already been made that … but now we’ve got water that’s going to move faster and better to Charlotte Street, and where is it going to go?”

“You know the good Lord promised he would never destroy the Earth again with water. I’m looking for the Washington City Council to assure us that they won’t either,” Davis said. “There’s a problem there, gentlemen, and it needs to be addressed.”

Former council member Gil Davis, who grew up in the Jack’s Creek basin, said the dam/dike at Park Drive contributes to the flooding problems in that basin. The Charlotte Street bridge is not the only culprit in this matter, he suggested. That dam is just downstream from the Charlotte Street bridge.

“The ideal thing to do is open up the dam and let the water do what nature decided. For years, Jack’s Creek flooded in and out, but until the dam was built, I never remember Jack’s Creek taking more than two days to empty after a storm left,” he said.

Gil Davis said if the city does anything to improve drainage in the Jack’s Creek basin before addressing the dam issue it would be putting the “cart before the horse.”

Other speakers echoed what Witchell, Derik Davis and Gil Davis said.

Mike McClure noted that the Brown Street bridge, which was replaced and reopened last week, had been closed since October 2006 and people “got along without it for years.”

“So, why not close the Charlotte Street bridge which is just a block or so up the road? McClure said. “Which is worse: driving or walking a few blocks extra to cross Jack’s Creek or watching … neighborhood flooding to our citizens because you wouldn’t take action on the bridge?”

About Mike Voss

Mike Voss is the contributing editor at the Washington Daily News. He has a daughter and four grandchildren. Except for nearly six years he worked at the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., in the early to mid-1990s, he has been at the Daily News since April 1986.
Journalism awards:
• Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service, 1990.
• Society of Professional Journalists: Sigma Delta Chi Award, Bronze Medallion.
• Associated Press Managing Editors’ Public Service Award.
• Investigative Reporters & Editors’ Award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Public Service Award, 1989.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Investigative Reporting, 1990.
All those were for the articles he and Betty Gray wrote about the city’s contaminated water system in 1989-1990.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Investigative Reporting, 1991.
• North Carolina Press Association, Third Place, General News Reporting, 2005.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Lighter Columns, 2006.
Recently learned he will receive another award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Lighter Columns, 2010.
4. Lectured at or served on seminar panels at journalism schools at UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Maryland, Columbia University, Mary Washington University and Francis Marion University.

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