Many people are drawn to live near rivers, lakes and other bodies of water. That means they have to take special care in case of floods, but flood walls and levees don’t always protect them. In one town, residents are asking why the wall separating their backyards from the neighboring river didn’t hold back the water. The GLRC’s Julie Grant reports on the safety of floodwalls and building in a floodplain:
Many people are drawn to live near rivers, lakes and other bodies of water. That means
they have to take special care in case of floods, but flood walls and levees don’t always
protect them. In one town, residents are asking why the wall separating their backyards
from the neighboring river didn’t hold back the water. The GLRC’s Julie Grant reports on
the safety of floodwalls and building in a floodplain:
Dale and Donna Smrdel bought a condominium along a river just a few months ago.
This summer they’ve been sitting in the backyard on a wall overlooking the river and
watching the sunset. But now, that concrete wall is broken and falling away from the
bank. It’s crumbled in some spots and held together only by twisted rebar.
“This is where the largest portion simply fell away because of the water. It was a torrent.
It was so strong it picked up a camper and flung it over this wall. Because the water was
so high above the wall, that it was like a toy. It just floated away like a toy.”
People on rafts rescued everyone from
second floor windows. Donna Smrdel says they thought this wall would protect them
“I don’t think there was a single person here that believed this was not going to keep us
safe. I think we all believed that even if the water did rise that it wouldn’t hurt the
retaining wall. None of us are engineers. We looked at it, it looked safe. We believed
we were safe. We had no idea, we just had no idea.”
This story is not uncommon. Last year, people in New Orleans expected a flood wall to
protect them from rising waters brought on by Hurricane Katrina. People along the
Mississippi River expected levees and flood walls to protect them from the Great Flood
of ’93. Many flood walls hold, but when they don’t, the people who thought they were
protected quickly find out they’re victims. In the case of the Smrdels, it turns out that
wall wasn’t even meant to protect them from high water.
Painesville City Manager Rita McMahon says the Smrdels live near the exit of the river,
where ice often jams in spring:
“Well, that wall was built by the private property owner as actually a flood protection
from ice dams. It wasn’t intended to protect the property from this type of a flood. This
was a volume flood that came from the south to the north. It was just a wall of water, so
The Smrdel’s condo community was built in the 100-year floodplain 30 years ago. Back
then, there weren’t regulations on building in a flood-prone area. Today, new buildings
have to be elevated.
That’s better protection then a wall, but flood walls and levee protection give people a
sense of security. Often they don’t think about that protection failing them, and the
consequences of what that failure will mean to their homes and families. Engineers say it
is possible to live safely by the water, but homeowners have to do their own investigating
to find out the safety of housing elevations and flood walls. We spoke with Carm
Marranka, a structural engineer with the US Army Corps of Engineers:
Julie: “When you look at Katrina, when you look at the Mississippi floods in ’93, and when we
look up here, do you think that sometimes flood walls, even those built by the Army Corps,
provide a false sense of security?”
Marranka: “I don’t know if it’s a false sense of security. I think
with the design and assumptions that I’m familiar with the factors of safety, those
structures are built at. And good maintenance, I think that’s a big issue. They have to be
maintained. They cannot be allowed to fall into disrepair.”
When the Army Corps builds a flood wall, Marranka says it’s usually up to the local
community to maintain it, but the local governments often don’t have enough money to
pay for that maintenance. Donna Smrdel doesn’t trust any of it anymore:
“I mean, even if they bulldozed it, what kind of retaining wall will they build next? If
this didn’t work, and we all believed it would work, what do you build next?”
All those other people flooded out of their homes will also have to decide whether they
trust flood prevention technology, and if living by the beautiful scenery is worth the
threat of floods.
For the GLRC, I’m Julie Grant.