Has city let its guard down?

Published 10:17 am Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Five hundred years sure passes quickly on the Blackwater River.

That thought came to me a few Saturday nights ago when forecasters, after a week of downplaying the possibility of major flooding in downtown Franklin, suddenly predicted a Blackwater crest of more than 20 feet, which would have put downtown under water for the third time in 12 years.

Even as the winds of Hurricane Irene continued to howl outside, my neighbor was moving computers out of his downtown office and arranging for rental trucks for a wholesale evacuation the next morning. Such is the life of a downtown business owner in Franklin — on edge every time heavy rains come and the river begins rising.

By the grace of God, the predicted flooding didn’t happen. By the next afternoon, the projected crest had been lowered significantly, and my friend turned in the rental trucks, unused.

The very fact that our community came so close to another major flood is disturbing. The experts told us after the devastating post-Hurricane Floyd flooding of 1999 that it was a “500-year event.” Yet in 2006, the lower end of Main Street was under water again.

Just this week, after a few inches of rain in the area late last week, the Blackwater unexpectedly rose again, closing Joyner’s Bridge, Burdette, Appleton, Governor Darden and Unity roads and Thomas Woods Trail. More rain is in the forecast for Friday and Saturday. Forecasters say the river will have fallen by then. Let’s hope.

The lesson of the last decade is that the “500-year” declaration of 1999 can’t be trusted. Another major flood in downtown Franklin is less a question of if than when.

The specter of another flood raises serious questions about a decision Franklin officials made last spring, with surprisingly little public discussion or fanfare.

After a decade of begging the Army Corps of Engineers and Congress for help in first figuring out the cause of frequent flooding and then mitigating the problem, the city curiously bailed out of the Corps’ Chowan River Basin project in March.

Citing concerns about the cost of further partnering with the Corps, the city opted to go it alone on flood prevention and seek state and federal grant money to put drop gates on culverts in strategic locations.

This columnist is no expert on the science of flooding, but people I respect tell me that the drop gates, in the event of major upstream flooding, would be as useful as a Band-Aid on a ruptured artery.

In a letter informing the Corps of the city’s decision, Franklin Director of Emergency Services Vince Holt wrote “on behalf of the Mayor, members of City Council, and the citizens of the City of Franklin.”

Yet, I can’t remember a single in-depth council discussion in advance of the decision, much less a public forum or hearing in which citizens were given the opportunity for input.

I understand the city’s concerns about the cost of the Corps project. Just the completion of the study phase could have cost Franklin hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on whether other localities in the Chowan River Basin had participated.

I also know that you can’t put a price tag on some things in life. A third major flood downtown would overwhelm an already-fragile local economy and do irreparable harm to our city. The implications extend far beyond the downtown commercial district.

“You Can’t Drown a Great Town” is good bumper-sticker fodder. Franklin is as resilient as they come. The human spirit, however, has its limits. At some point, those who have continued to invest in downtown will say enough is enough, especially if they conclude that city leaders aren’t doing their part to prevent future flooding.

By bailing out of the Chowan River Basin project, Franklin is playing with a force more powerful than fire. Next time the Blackwater rises, someone in city government should pick up the phone, call the Corps and say, “On second thought …”

STEVE STEWART is publisher of The Tidewater News. His email address is steve.stewart@tidewaternews.com.