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Big flood prevention projects not in the cards for Southern Tier

Rick Woidt stands in front of the flood wall at Union-Endicott High School, a flood prevention project that was implemented after the 2006 floods.
Matt Richmond
Rick Woidt stands in front of the flood wall at Union-Endicott High School, a flood prevention project that was implemented after the 2006 floods.

Chip McElwee leads a virtual tour of flood damage, through Google Maps' satellite images. Six months after Tropical Storm Lee dumped twelve inches of water on the Southern Tier - and even after the images have been updated - the maps still show wide, dark scars dotting the Southern Tier.

"This is Big Choconut Creek. This creek is always a mess. This is not unusual," says the head of the Broome County Soil and Water Conservation District, which maintains the county's streams.

McElwee zooms in on a gash left by the creek flooding its banks.

"Look at this, it's huge - football fields," he says, pointing to the screen. The stream has eaten away chunks of backyards before receding.

"Where do you start? You just gotta go around, and it's band-aids. The triage part of it is maybe the most frustrating," says McElwee.

Engineering against the flood

The last of the big flood control projects, including the Whitney Point Reservoir and projects completed by McElwee's office, were completed in the '90s. The system of levees and flood walls were built in the '40s. 

The Department of Environmental Conservation maintains that system. William Nechamen, the DEC's head of floodplain management, says after a 2006 flood hit the Southern Tier, those flood walls were all deemed too small to protect against another major flood.

"I think the most important lesson learned is that we're always going to have flooding, and people really need to design their homes and businesses, and locate their homes and businesses, in ways that minimize the amount of damage," says Nechamen.

He says fixing the flood walls so they're high enough would be too expensive.

"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," says Nechamen.

McElwee says that even if they built higher walls  in Binghamton, it would just move the problem downstream.

"If you had higher flood walls, all you would have done is send extra water down to Vestal or to Owego," says McElwee.

Then there's the issue of where to build large containment structures like the Whitney Point Reservoir. On the one hand, it probably has to be in a rural place so not that many people are displaced. On the other hand, building containment in a rural place fails the cost-benefit ratio, says McElwee.

"What we try to do is work with the stream and not fight it. You fight mother nature and inevitably you're going to lose," says McElwee.

So his office is working on small projects. Ten are in progress, but McElwee says there are about 100 that need attention in Broome County alone.

Otherwise, homeowners are largely on their own.

The federal government is offering those with flood insurance a couple of options: "buyouts" and "elevation." In the first, homeowners with damages totaling more than 50 percent of the value of the house before the flood can take a buyout from the government. The county takes over the property and nothing can be built there again.

In the second option, houses can be put on stilts, though it takes some pay-in from the homeowner to make that happen, and houses would be lifted above the flood level.

$12 million for two projects

Rick Woidt, a Binghamton engineer who specializes in flood control, helped build two successful projects in Binghamton, that prevented flood damage from recurring in 2011.

But the projects came at a price.

One, at Union Endicott High School, cost about $4 million and the other, at Lourdes Hospital, cost about $8 million.

They shared a few features that helped make them successful:

  • Built close to the structures (school and hospital) that needed protecting while allowing non-critical areas (athletic fields and a parking lot) to flood.
  • Building multiple openings for access (more so with the hospital) that are sealed during flooding by doors that float up with the flood waters, along with a backup system for sealing the openings.
  • Pumps that remove water from the roofs so the building doesn't flood from inside the wall.

Woidt says the strongest feature of these two projects is that they didn't simply push water further down the river.

WSKG/Southern Tier reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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