Faulty Flood Walls Spring Problems

  • Donna Smrdel stands in her backyard by the "flood wall." (Photo by Julie Grant)

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:

Transcript

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
from flooding:


“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
to speak.”


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.

Related Links

Will Katrina Ease Lumber Trade War?

Hurricane Katrina may be able to do what years of squabbling, negotiations and trade panel rulings have failed to do…lift the duties on imports of Canadian softwood lumber to the U.S. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Dan Karpenchuk explains:

Transcript

Hurricane Katrina may be able to do what years of squabbling, negotiations, and trade panel rulings have failed to do: lift the duties on imports of Canadian softwood lumber to the U.S. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Dan Karpenchuk explains:


There are concerns in the U.S. that the huge job of rebuilding New Orleans in the wake of the hurricane could lead to spikes in the cost of construction materials.


The U.S. Treasury Department says it will monitor the situation, and if it’s in the best public interest, then it could drop the tariffs on Canadian lumber. Jamie Lim is with the Ontario Forest Industries Association. Lim says it would be the best move for all.


“Katrina was a natural disaster, but the illegal tariffs that have been put on lumber over the last twenty years is a man-made disaster, and it’s U.S. consumers who’ve been paying the price.”


Canada provides up to a third of the softwood lumber used in construction in the U.S., but for the past four years, Canadian producers have been paying more than twenty-five percent in tariffs and punitive duties.


That’s estimated to have increased the average cost of a house by about a thousand dollars.


For the GLRC, I’m Dan Karpenchuk.

Related Links

CUBA GROWS ITS WAY OUT OF SHORTAGE (Part 1)

  • A market in Cuba where growers sell what they don’t keep themselves. Photo by Mary Stucky

While organic farming is growing across the U.S., the number of farmers in the Great Lakes using organic methods is still quite small – not so though in Cuba. In the past decade that island nation has embraced small-scale organic farming and urban gardens. Production of vegetables has soared, which has attracted attention from experts in the Great Lakes region who are visiting Cuba in increasing numbers. In the first of a two-part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Stucky went along with one group to find out how the country transformed its agricultural practices:

Transcript

While organic farming is growing across the U.S., the number of farmers in the
Great Lakes using organic methods is still quite small. Not so, though, in Cuba.
In the past decade that island nation has embraced small-scale organic farming and urban gardens. Production of vegetables has soared… which has attracted attention from
experts in the Great Lakes region who are visiting Cuba in increasing numbers. The
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Stucky went along with one group to find out
what the Cubans can teach Midwest farmers about farming.


Cuban farmers had little choice about whether to embrace organic agriculture. Just seven
years ago, the Cuban people faced starvation, but today.


“For us, we are alive, we are alive.”


For Mavis Alvarez, and other Cubans, just having survived is an accomplishment.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, it had a ripple effect on Cuba as well. That’s because Cuba’s economy was based on financial assistance from the Soviet bloc, especially its food economy. And when that money stopped, Cuba’s citizens began to feel the effects. Before long, Cuba could no longer afford to import food, fertilizer or pesticides. So the government made a
drastic decision. Food would be grown without chemicals using alternative methods.
To many, it was seen as a major gamble…. but it worked.


(Natural sound from vegetable stand)


Vegetable stands in residential Havana display piles of lush vegetables at reasonable prices. While there are still severe shortages of meat and milk, the country is now producing four
times the vegetables compared to the worst year of the food crisis – and this is done largely without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.


“I have so much respect for that and Cubans are evidently in the forefront.”


Diane Dodge is a master gardener from St. Paul, Minnesota. Among organic farmers, Cuba is
renowned – and many, like Dodge, are visiting the island to see Cuba’s methods with their own eyes.


“They’re not necessarily trying to change anything. What they’re trying to do is go with the
flow of nature and that’s very contrary to what we do. We’re always trying to manage nature, change nature and here it’s all of a piece.”


Cuba has combined organic farming methods including natural pest controls and
fertilizers… along with a vast new system of urban gardens like this one in Havana.


(Natural sound of windmill)


A windmill pumps water for this garden. Ten years ago this was a weed patch. Now it’s a lush
jungle of vegetables, spices and fruit… by law no chemicals can touch this soil. Through a translator gardener Ignacio Aguileras Garcias explains he feeds 10 family members from his plot.


“Here we have 43 farmers and maybe only 8 or ten sell the products. The rest use the products for their own consumption. You work on your piece of land and you do with your production whatever you want.”


Just a few short years ago many Cubans were starving. Nowadays most Cubans are eating well
enough to meet standards set by the United Nations. Some experts’ say that proves organic farming can feed a country’s people. Urban gardens produce more than half of the fruits and vegetables consumed in Cuba. Minor Sinclair lived in Cuba in the 1990’s. He represented Oxfam America, a charity working on food policy, and says it’s justified to use valuable urban land to grow food.


“You produce it locally, you get people involved in the production, you market it locally. You can go out and walk two blocks and buy a head of lettuce that’s been removed from the earth right there in front of your eyes. And that lettuce lasts a week in the refrigerator. Better product, cheaper prices and better income for the farmers too.”


So what those who came to visit the farms have found is that in ten short years Cuba has transformed its agriculture production… and that’s a good thing, says the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Wayne Monsen.


“You know they know how to feed themselves. I’m not sure Americans would know how to feed
ourselves if there was a crisis where the food supply stopped.”


But Cubans are looking beyond feeding themselves. In February, the first certified organic sugar
from Cuba was sold to European chocolate-makers. There’s a great demand in Europe for other
organic foods as well. If organics become a Cuban export bonanza, it would certainly get the
attention of farmers up north, in the Great Lakes.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mary Stucky.

Huck Finn Rides Again

  • Looking for an America with "substance," Mike Delano of Boston, along with Ben Doornbos and Ethan VanDrunen (L-R) both from the Holland, Michigan area are making their way down the Mississippi River on the 'Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn of Michigan,' a homemade raft they hope will carry them to New Orleans. Photo by Lester Graham

Inspired by Mark Twain novels, a trio of Huck Finns is taking a raft down the Mississippi river. They started their adventure where Mark Twain often did in his novels — Hannibal, Missouri. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham has the story:

Transcript

Inspired by Mark Twain novels. A trio of Huck Finn is taking a raft down the Mississippi River. They started their adventure where Mark Twain often did in his novels, Hannibal, Missouri. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports.


Looking at their raft, it appears to be a little precarious. Inspecting a little more carefully doesn’t inspire confidence. They’re thrilled to find that the 1947 pontoons that they patched with fiberglass don’t seem to be leaking. This little vessel, a small deck of not much more than plywood and two-by-fours with an even smaller roof overhead has been dubbed the Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn of Michigan. It says so in magic marker and poster board tacked to the wooden side rail of the raft.


Ben Doornbos and his friend Ethan Van-Drunen are from the Holland, Michigan area. The third member of the trio, Mike Delano is from Boston. The little raft is supposed to take its passengers from Hannibal, down the mighty Mississippi to New Orleans. Doornbos says their trip on a homemade raft is inspired by Mark Twain’s characters in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, from the nineteenth century. But their reasons for launching the rickety craft seems to be more a reaction to frustration with the twenty-first century’s culture.


“We’re always griping about America and about kind of the loss of culture and how everything seems to look the same on the interstates. You know, it’s always McDonald’s here and, uhm, it’s just kind of– we wanted to find something else that was– had some substance, something that felt like something.”


We’re all sitting on lawn chairs on the raft, still on the trailer that hauled it to Hannibal. While his friend talks, Ethan Van-Frunen nods his head in agreement.


“I too, like Ben, am just kind of frustrated by cookie cutter America and mall culture and everything like that. And part of, like, what I hope to accomplish on the trip is seeing people who are, like, finding their identity and their culture and their past. So, that’s what I’m going to be looking for a lot on the trip is just talking with people who we meet along the way and what they’re interested in.”


As they try to explain their reasons for the trip, again and again the young men use the words “be free” and “freedom.” Each of them is twenty years old, quite a bit older than Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, but Mile Delano says really for all of them it’s the perfect time for an adventure before their freedom disappears.


“Right now I have no payments at all, car, apartment, insurance. So, I am completely free and this is the perfect time for that, so, I’m going to get on the river and get down to Louisiana.”


Van-Drunen and Doornbos built and tested the raft in Michigan. They noted when they slipped it into the still waters of a local lake that the raft rode deeper in the water than expected. They’ve been warned that the swirling currents and wakes of barge tow-boats can be unforgiving.


(Festival Band Sound)


The three friends have timed their trip to start during Tom Sawyer days in Hannibal. They even got to put their raft in the big parade. The local folks are a bit skeptical. They applaud the courage of the young men, but as David puts it,


“Well, I’ve been out on it on a boat before and I don’t think I’d want to do it on a raft, no.”


There are a lot of folks from all over the nation in Hannibal that come to see some of the sites mentioned in Mark Twain’s books. Standing across the streets from the site of the whitewashed board fence that inspired the story of Tom Sawyer persuading his gang to paint it and pay him for the privilege.


Larry Woodward shakes his head, he’s heard about the raft trip. He just brought his boat down from Wisconsin, and wonders whether the three friends know what they’re getting themselves into.


“I floated down in a 24-foot sailboat, but we were under power all the way with a diesel engine and I felt real intimidated by, particularly, the locks and the dams and a lot of places where the current could easily overpower my boat. So, I wish them luck, but it sounds like risky business to me.”


The three Huck Finns say they’ve been told the trip is a piece of cake. They’ve also been told they’ll likely get themselves killed. Mike Delano says they think the little craft has a fighting chance.


“We’re really hoping to raft to New Orleans, but I think we’re making our goal just to get to New Orleans, but if it doesn’t work out, we’ re just going to enjoy ourselves and, uh, no worries, I guess. We don’t want to have to worry about things like that. At least, I certainly don’t and I think I speak for all of us.”


His friend Ben Doornbos says, they feel a to like Huck Finn when he was adopted by Aunt Polly.


“He runs away from her. He talks about how it’s all too cramped in there and everything too civilized and he can’t stand it. And we’re just thinking the same thing. It’s time to get out and have some adventure.”


The trio says they’ve got six weeks for their adventure and they plan to use every moment. No matter how their raft, the Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn of Michigan fares.