City flooding a matter of aging infrastructure, lack of funds

Published 6:54 pm Friday, August 25, 2017

Katie Mosher has lost two cars in the last two years. She’s replaced the ductwork beneath her house countless times in the past decade. The hardwood floors in her home are buckling; floor joists, rotting; her yard, dotted with sinkholes.

It’s not neglect that has Mosher’s home and vehicles in such a state of disrepair. It’s flooding.

Mosher lives on East 12th Street in Washington. It’s a street lined with modest houses; it’s also a place where residents know if there’s a storm coming, they need to take their cars to higher ground. More likely than not, the street will be impassable because of flooding.

And it’s getting worse, according to Mosher.

“This week, we were flooded — the entire street,” Mosher said. “On what we consider a short-burst storm, it usually takes about 45 minutes to recede enough so we’re not walking through ankle-deep water. This week, (the water) stayed up for about 2 or 3 hours.”

The cause was a Wednesday night thunderstorm that dropped up to 5 inches of rain in parts of Beaufort County. The result was numerous streets off of Market Street, from Ninth to 15th streets, blocked off with police-distributed cones to keep drivers from venturing into deep water. Sometimes the effort works, others times it doesn’t, and houses along East 12th Street are inundated by the wakes of passing motorists, Mosher said. The flooding, however, occurs every time there’s a hard rain.

“It definitely impacts all of our lives on that street,” she said.

Mosher has taken the issue to the City of Washington, to the state and FEMA, and so far, the only response she said she’s gotten is a three-year reprieve on her flood insurance: North Carolina Department of Emergency Management and FEMA are now shouldering her $5,000-per-year flood insurance premium. While she’s ultimately hoping for a buyout from FEMA, if it doesn’t happen, she has limited options for what to do with a house water is gradually tearing apart.

“I can’t sell my house. Nobody in their right mind would buy it, and the banks won’t loan money on it,” Mosher said.

According to Washington Public Works Director Frankie Buck, the root of the problem lies in the city’s aging infrastructure.

“That pipe system was designed for a certain amount of runoff 50 years ago,” Buck said.

Buck said, while the city has grown and more impervious surfaces such as parking lots and buildings have been built, the system to drain runoff from those surfaces has not been updated. To fix the problem involves getting the water out of those low-lying areas as quickly as possible, which would require a redo of the entire drainage system from 15th Street to the pump station at the East Third Street bridge over Jack’s Creek, he said.

“The bottom line here is money, but we have to have larger culvert and pipe sizes north of East Ninth Street up to 15th Street in order to accomplish that,” Buck said.

It’s a costly affair. A mitigation study performed by McGill and Associates several years ago estimated Washington could spend $7-10 million on fixing flooding problems surrounding Jack’s Creek, Runyon Creek and Cherry Run. Washington City Planning Director John Rodman said Jack’s Creek alone would likely cost half that.

Rodman said the city is in the process of applying for FEMA/National Flood Insurance Program grant funding — applications are due mid-September. Unlike the first round of grant money earmarked for damages wrought by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016, this round includes funding for infrastructure. This time, Washington may have a chance, Rodman said.

“They’re looking for projects where they already have a plan in place,” Rodman said, referring to the McGill and Associates study. “They wouldn’t fund all of it — all we’re submitting for is funding for the Jack’s Creek basin. … Hopefully, we’ll get some funds this time.”

Buck said even with a new system, it’s unlikely flooding will be completely eliminated in the affected areas. Instead, the goal is to lessen the duration of any flooding, he said.

With the land beneath her home unable to dry out, Mosher knows about the duration of flooding and the damage it can do to a house. In the past two years alone, insurance has paid for $15,000 in repairs to her HVAC; she spent another $5,000 out of pocket to fix aging terracotta sewer pipes that broke under the weight of floodwater during Hurricane Matthew.

Mosher said her and others’ concerns have largely been ignored by city officials, who have instead bypassed mitigation projects in their neighborhood in favor of more affluent ones such as Smallwood. She’s even gone so far as to offer to sell her house to the city at a bargain-basement price.

“I sent them a private email basically throwing my hands up in the air, offering the house to them at half the value because I give up,” Mosher said.

She said she’s looking forward to an eventual FEMA buyout and being able to afford to build on land she owns in Chocowinity. But until then, she’ll be parking her car on higher ground when the weather forecast calls for it.

“I’m lucky. I’m in a good position. I have a good job and a supportive family,” Mosher said. “I know 12th Street can’t be the only ones that go through it. I feel for all of them.”