By Brad Bauer and Sam Shawver, The Marietta Times
Four years after catastrophic flooding at Marietta, how prepared are forecasters and the community for the next major high water event?
A review of the flood of September 2004 shows some significant steps have been made to mitigate future damage by floods. Still, communities along the Muskingum River and Duck Creek lack adequate river gauges.
MITCH CASEY The Marietta Times
A pedestrian passes Wednesday a Front Street plaque marking the height of flood waters following the torrential rains that hit the Mid-Ohio Valley four years ago from the remnants of Hurricane Ivan.
An aerial view of the flooding in 2004.
"In many ways we are better prepared than ever," said Marietta Mayor Michael Mullen.
Since the 2004 flood at Marietta, a new river gauge has been installed at Marietta and weather officials at the National Weather Service have revised their river forecasting practices. Also, dozens of automated rain gauges in West Virginia that were not working at the time have been repaired.
When combined, it should mean the area will have the most accurate and up-to-date information available to make informed decisions when there is a threat of high water.
Key Ivan dates
Sept. 17, 2004: While record rains fell across the region the National Weather Service predicted the Ohio River would crest slightly above flood stage at Marietta, followed by a report in the afternoon that it would instead crest more than a foot below flood stage. About 10 p.m. Friday, the prediction was changed again with the crest predicted to be 41.5 feet by 4 p.m. Saturday.
Sept. 18, 2004: The rain from Ivan had passed, but by 9 a.m., the Ohio River at Marietta had already exceeded 38 feet and had flooded dozens of cars parked around the city. It also started to affect some properties.
Sept. 19, 2004: At 5:30 p.m. the Ohio River at Marietta reached a crest of 44.97 feet, nearly 10 feet above flood stage.
Mullen said the city is also installing special valves to prevent water from backing up through storm drains into low-lying areas.
"Still, there are other things we could do that would give us better information and better prepare us in an emergency," Mullen said.
One area that is still lacking is the installation of additional river gauges along the Muskingum River.
Waterford resident Hugh Davis, 49, said folks living along the Muskingum had no idea how bad things would get after record rainfall totals Sept. 17, 2004, from Marietta to Pittsburgh. As a result of the 4.87 inches of rain that fell that day, the Ohio River climbed at its highest rate in recorded history, which was 22 feet in 24 hours.
"No one could tell you what was going to happen on the Muskingum because there's no flood gauge from McConnelsville to Marietta," Davis said. "We just had to guess."
The Muskingum River did not flood at McConnelsville in September 2004. At the time, nearly every community south of McConnelsville, did flood. The communities are 32 river miles apart.
When the Ohio River finally crested on Sept. 19 at Marietta, it stood at 44.97 feet, nearly 10 feet above flood stage at Marietta.
Despite the record rains, the National Weather Service in Charleston, W.Va., canceled flood warnings for Marietta as rain continued to fall.
The false sense of security cost millions in property damage and put thousands of lives in danger. Ultimately, the problem came down to forecasters failing to believe computer generated flood forecast models.
Officials with the weather service could not be reached Wednesday. However, since the incident assurances have been made that such errors should not happen in the future. Also, flood forecast models are now generated more frequently during major storms.
All of the flooding was the result of the remnants of Hurricane Ivan, and in part, by Hurricane Frances, which had soaked the region a week earlier.
Since the flood, an Ohio River flood gauge was installed at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers and is being used as a forecasting point by the weather service. The previous forecasting point for Marietta was about two miles southwest on the Ohio River near Boaz, W.Va., and created a lot of problems because of the discrepancy between river levels being reported and local historical benchmarks people were used to using.
There were plans for river gauges to be installed between Marietta and McConnelsville, but no action has been taken on them since 2005.
"There were plans to put one at the Beverly power plant (AEP), and one more just north of Marietta that would help everyone be better able to track flood peaks and develop more accurate forecasts," said Jim Mangus, data chief in charge of stream gauges for the U.S. Geological Survey in Columbus.
"We submitted a plan for the installation of those gauges to the local level (Washington County commissioners), but I think it stalled because there were some concerns about funding," Mangus said.
Mangus said funding was available for the purchase and installation of the gauges. The setback was a $3,500 annual maintenance fee.
Commissioner John Grimes said there has been no talk of a river gauge along the Muskingum River since 2005.
"The issue continues to be money," Grimes said. "It probably isn't a bad idea to have another river gauge and it might offer some assurances, but as long as we have to maintain it we have to find funding."
Grimes said the county's sales tax continues to lag and energy and personnel costs continue to rise.
In early 2007 Marietta's extensive history of flooding and flood losses resulted in the city being selected as a model for a pilot flood hazard mitigation planning project.
During planning sessions and three public meetings, federal, state and local agencies, as well as the private sector, focused on developing a workable plan to help reduce future flood damage.
Among the options considered were the use of portable and permanent flood walls, and the installation of special backflow prevention valves to keep floodwaters from backing up into city storm sewers.
Jim Bir with Lock One Engineers recommended installing large "duckbill" valves on city storm sewer outflows along the Ohio and Muskingum rivers to prevent rising river water from entering the sewer system. Placed at the end of outflows that empty stormwater into the rivers, the devices are designed to close as river water rises
Similar valves have been successfully used along the Kanawha River in Charleston, W.Va.
Marietta obtained a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and hired Lock One to design the project.
"We're working on finalizing the design now, and expect to have the plans finished within the next week or two," Bir said on Wednesday.
"We decided to use the grant to install seven or eight of the duckbill valves, including one on Goose Run," he said. "Most of the valves will be located on the lowest outfalls along the Ohio River downstream from the area near the city wastewater treatment plant."
Mullen said the duckbill project should be especially helpful during floods in low-lying areas of the city.
"Although the official flood stage is 35 feet in Marietta, there are some low-lying areas that begin taking on water at levels in the upper 20-foot range," he said. "This should help take care those areas during the most frequent type of flooding."
The mayor said during initial planning for the duckbill project it was thought that the Goose Run outfall into the Muskingum River could not be included due to its large size.
"But that stream drains about 80 acres in the city, and installing a valve to prevent river water from backing up into Goose Run should have a huge impact on some of our flooding problems," he said. "And if this duckbill project is successful we can expand it to other areas of the city."
As soon as Lock One's design is complete, the city will begin advertising for bids to do the actual installation, Mullen said.