Stormwater system improvements and initiatives have had a big impact on public safety
In most parts of the country, flood forecasts are made days and even weeks in advance. Not so in central Texas. Known as Flash Flood Alley, floods can happen with little warning and be gone just as quickly.
It’s a problem Fort Worth has been taking head on since it formed a stormwater utility in 2006. According to the U.S. Geological Society, Texas leads the country in flood deaths and property damage due to its location near two oceans, topography and weather patterns that can cause storm systems to stall, turning dry creek beds into raging torrents. In 1921, the community received 32 inches of rain in 12 hours. In 1935, 22 inches of rain fell in less than three hours.
It wasn’t that bad on April 13 in Fort Worth, but some areas still flooded. Just over an inch of rain fell in 15 minutes during a 90-minute rainfall that dumped a total of 2.4 inches. The flooding occurred in the usual areas, such as neighborhoods that were built many years ago over filled-in creek beds, according to Linda Sterne, communications officer for the stormwater management division.
Central Arlington Heights is one such area. The city had discussed acquiring the most flood-prone residential properties and building a linear park that would provide stormwater detention. The consensus of the community, however, was that the removal of homes would be more detrimental to the neighborhood than the recurring flooding.
“We need to find out what is affordable, what is effective and what is acceptable,” says Sterne of the challenge. “We engage with [homeowners] constantly. They know we are doing things, but they’re frustrated. Our heart goes out to them.”
It demonstrates the sense of accomplishment mixed with the frustration of dealing with a massive effort. “The water is going to go where Mother Nature sends it,” Sterne adds. “The people at the bottom get inundated but don’t want to move.”
Aided by a stormwater utility fee, more than 300 properties have been protected against flash flooding since 2006. From 1986 to 2007, 17 people died in flash floods in Fort Worth. There have been no deaths since. After the recent floods, local TV stations highlighted some of the improved areas and interviewed residents who say they no longer have to worry. But there are still neighborhoods that flood; 58 areas have high water warning systems on streets that are prone to flash flooding.
The city’s “Turn Around Don’t Drown” campaign is an initiative to save lives by teaching people to avoid driving through high water, and neighborhoods have learned to cope. Some homeowners have their own sandbags and work together as neighbors. When storms are predicted, the city will go to flood-prone areas to clean storm drains, inlets and catch basins. One proposal is to do early garbage pickup if storms are forecast. In April, flooding was made worse in one neighborhood when eight garbage bags blocked a stormwater inlet.
Stormwater system improvements continue and the city is focusing on efforts such as getting people to buy flood insurance and reworking the flood plain maps to assist in that effort. That includes capturing data and evidence, something with which the public has been helpful.
Despite the progress, it will take many years and hundreds of millions of dollars to complete all the needed work, Sterne says. “It’s going to take decades, and frankly it’s not going to be resolved in my lifetime. We feel proud that we have many things behind us but know that we have a lot more ahead of us."