Englewood acknowledges missteps in flood readiness

Steps being discussed to prevent future tragedy in city

Posted 8/10/18

In 1998, a report by an outside company outlined areas of Englewood that could be flooded during a so-called "100-year" storm. The map was rough, and the study acknowledged it shouldn't be used to …

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Englewood acknowledges missteps in flood readiness

Steps being discussed to prevent future tragedy in city

Posted

In 1998, a report by an outside company outlined areas of Englewood that could be flooded during a so-called "100-year" storm.

The map was rough, and the study acknowledged it shouldn't be used to establish flood-area regulations.

But included on that map was a slice of the 4600 blocks of South Acoma and Bannock streets, an area among the hardest hit by the July 24 flooding that displaced several and affected at least 25 housing units in the city — and took one woman's life — in a storm the city has acknowledged it was ill-prepared to withstand.

“We were caught flat-footed with this,” said Eric Keck, city manager, on Aug. 6 in front of Englewood City Council at the first regular meeting since the flood.

Keck noted the city's need for a new emergency-operations plan, Englewood's lack of an emergency manager, that its storm-drain system was built in the 1950s to 1970s and that it lacks a communications system for disasters — a gap that caused a slow response for recovery efforts, Keck wrote in a report to council.

Among the dozens who saw damage in the flood, Vicki Hoffmann, owner of a property on South Bannock Street, vented her frustration to city council weeks after her tenants were displaced and their basement damaged.

“The city has known this problem has existed for years,” Hoffmann later said.

What went wrong

As hail, plants and debris clogged up drainage ways, cold water ravaged parts of the city that felt adrift in the aftermath.

“Response by departments other than (fire and police) were slower than what was needed to help the rapid recovery efforts,” Keck wrote in the report, adding that the city doesn't have a clear system for speaking with disaster victims other than going door to door.

A single contact person, like an emergency manager, would have “helped to allay frustration, anxiety and fear,” Keck added. City staff requested an emergency-management position from city council earlier this year, he wrote.

The city needs an emergency plan that includes identifying shelter, trash receptacles and street-sweeping assistance — along with ways to get help from surrounding governments — and training so city staff members know their roles, the report said. Staff and elected officials duplicated efforts to request help after the storm, it added.

Englewood should also educate residents about keeping plants, trash and debris out of alleys — a factor that can lead to clogged storm drains, the report said.

Another change suggested: focusing on the people themselves rather than only working to determine the damage.

“We must never forget that people were impacted by this storm that needed information, to be heard, to be seen and to be cared for,” Keck wrote.

Not formal flood zone

But Englewood also needs to address the storm-drainage system itself, the report said. That requires spending “significant resources” and increasing stormwater fees to residents, it added. Currently, the residential fee is about $17 per year.

A 1999 study by Turner, Collie and Braden Inc. — the same engineering firm that put out the 1998 study — recommended improvements to the city to address drainage for storms that typically occur over two- to five-year spans. Those are much more common than a "100-year" storm, an unscientific term for a storm that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year.

“It appears that little to none of these improvements have been implemented since that time,” Keck's report said.

Englewood has rules for certain parts of the city labeled floodplains, areas regulated as being susceptible to flooding. Those include the areas of the South Platte River, Little Dry Creek, Big Dry Creek and West Harvard Gulch, according to the city. For example, development in those areas over a certain size must accommodate water runoff for a "100-year" storm.

No such precautions exist for the South Acoma and Bannock streets' neighborhood, though, because other areas in the city are not designated as "100-year" floodplains. That designation depends on the Federal Emergency Management Agency working with state and local governments to map it out as such, according to Brian Hvinden, spokesman for FEMA Region 8.

Homeowners in a floodplain are also generally required to have flood insurance. Beth Minnick, owner of a property on the 4600 block of South Acoma Street, said her insurer told her years ago that insurance wasn't then available to her because the building wasn't in a designated floodplain. Dave Cuesta, city councilmember for District 4, said residents told him similar stories or said they opted out of purchasing the insurance.

Several people in that block of Acoma and Bannock streets did not have flood insurance, according to Minnick and Hoffmann, some saying they were unaware of the government-managed National Flood Insurance Program, which sells flood insurance to those in and outside of floodplains.

Hoffmann's statement to city council urged the “floodplain to be immediately disclosed to owners (and) renters.” Keck's report said an analysis of the city's storm-sewer system will determine if Englewood can make improvements to protect against a "100-year" storm.

Citing analysis by the Urban Drainage and Flood Control District, the city has said the July 24 storm’s severity is associated with a 50-to-100-year event, meaning a storm of that magnitude has a 1 to 2 percent chance of happening in any given year.

The 1998 study that mapped potential flood areas — available on the city's website —specified that it “should not be mistaken” for the level of detail in a more formal floodplain analysis and should not be used to “establish regulatory floodplain zoning or flood-insurance requirements.”

In recovery

On Bannock Street, 23-year-old Randy Elizondo mowed the lawn on a block where large trash receptacles still stood in the street in the flood's aftermath. He's been helping a childhood friend's mother with cleanup ever since the storm.

The mother and son “have been in a hotel for almost two weeks,” said Elizondo, who lives in the Littleton area, on Aug. 9. It could be a few more weeks before repairs are done at their home at 4640 S. Bannock St., he said.

A short walk east, on Acoma Street, large trash receptacles lined the middle of the street where flooding hit hard, near where Rachael Marie Haber, 32, was pulled out of nearly ceiling-high water by Englewood police in the basement unit at 4650 S. Acoma St.

Haber was taken to Swedish Medical Center and died the next morning, with drowning the probable cause of death, according to the Arapahoe County Coroner's Office.

Keck's report to the city recommends it identify whether adding more detention basins — structures that collect stormwater — is possible, but it notes a “lack of available space” and said the city needs to find “creative solutions.”

The report also recommended applying for funding for flood-mitigation grant money, lowering the size threshold for properties that must have on-site water detention and raising the stormwater fee. City council gave city staff the green light to bring forward more information on the four initiatives.

Staff requested the ability to work with the state and FEMA to get disaster-mitigation funding that “could help with future projects” to make Englewood more prepared in the future.

For Elizondo and others, the focus is still recovering from July's disaster.

“It's a lot of work, it sucks,” Elizondo said, “but what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.”

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