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'When the river comes down the hill'

More frequent flash floods heighten awareness, but government slow to change

From the From Tribune files: Flood of 2007 cost seven lives, hundreds of millions in damage series
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Keith Butler is in the business of preparing for disasters, but he was not prepared for what he saw on Aug. 19, 2007.

“We’d never seen that before,” La Crosse County’s emergency management director says over and over as he recounts the carnage.

Torrential rains swept away roads, bridges and buildings. Hillsides liquefied, and basements filled with mud. A freight train derailed just south of La Crosse, fueling fears of a hazardous waste spill. Across the river in Minnesota, the situation was even more grim: seven people died and communities were washed away by the floodwaters.

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Streambank damage in Minnesota City, Minn., after the 2007 flood. Flooding is just as big a concern today for the Winona County Soil and Water conservation district due to fears of increased extreme weather due to global warming.  

In two decades of responding to emergencies — first as a 911 dispatcher and later as emergency manager — Butler had come to view the main flood threat as the Mississippi River, where waters can take weeks to rise. This disaster came literally overnight, as babbling brooks and even dry ditches turned to raging rivers.

“It took us by surprise,” Butler said. “We didn’t have a lot of history or training for when the river comes down the hill.”

In the decade since, he’s seen this type of damage again and again. And climate scientists say it’s likely to continue.

Big rains more frequent as world warms

This new climate regime, in which warmer temperatures trigger more powerful storms, has rendered much of the nation’s infrastructure and planning increasingly inadequate. Flood maps need to be redrawn, homes and businesses moved. Roads and bridges are washed out with regularity. Storm sewers and catch basins can’t contain the runoff made greater and more powerful by ever more acres of row crops and pavement.

“We’re seeing flooding in places that have never flooded before,” said Rick Larkin, who worked on flood relief after the 2007 flood in Winona County and is now president of the Association of Minnesota Emergency Managers. “Our infrastructure across the country is stressed already, and now we’re looking at this increasing number of mega-rain events and saying that infrastructure is not capable of handling it.”

A widely-cited study commissioned by Congress found that disaster mitigation has a four-fold payback, but despite recognition from those on the ground, such changes are expensive and politically fraught, and they aren’t happening on any large scale.

“How do you plan for 7 inches of rain in a coulee?” said Dave Bonifas, a community development planner for the Mississippi River Regional Planning Commission who has drafted hazard mitigation plans for La Crosse and neighboring counties. “You can’t. You can plan for what the average would be. What happens when you get 12 inches?”

Hundred year floods every year

Since 2007, unusually heavy rains have hit the Coulee Region eight times, triggering flash flooding and mudslides, resulting in at least 10 deaths and more than $1 billion in property damage, according to a storm database maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Houston County in southeastern Minnesota has been the subject of five flooding-related disaster declarations since 2007, after just 10 over the previous 42 years. Iowa’s Allamakee County has has seven.

Storms hit in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2013, and 2015. Last year there were three: Trempealeau and Buffalo counties got drenched on Aug. 11; northeast Iowa got it less than two weeks later. Then the entire region was soaked by a series of storms in September that killed two people, derailed a train and caused about $22 million in damages — more than half of it in Vernon and Crawford counties.

Butler hadn’t even delivered disaster relief paperwork to local municipalities for the September event before they were hit with yet another 5-inch rain storm in July.

“I’m concerned we’re getting storms every year, every other year,” Butler said. “Now we’re getting them every 10 months.”

In Winona County, a highway crew was out on June 22 repairing damage from a 5-inch rain event the previous month when the skies opened up over Altura. One of the workers heard something and looked up to see a wall of water, which he captured in a dramatic cell phone video.

So-called hundred-year floods have become a nearly annual event — and climatologists say they are likely to become even more common as global temperatures continue to rise.

“What may have been a hundred-year flood historically may be something you see much more frequently with climate change and other things happening,” said Jeff Schlegelmilch, deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “There’s definitely more and more of an acknowledgment of the likelihood of seeing more extreme weather events going into the future and that we can’t use historical markers to help sort of guide us … going into the future under this changing environment.”

In fact, emergency managers now prefer to talk about weather events in terms of probability.

“When folks hear these 1,000-year storms, they think, ‘Oh, we had a thousand-year storm last year, that means we’re good for another 999 years,’” Larkin said. “In any given year out of a thousand storms the probability of one being that bad is 1 in 1,000. That probability stays with you the whole year. You could have two thousand-year storms in a year.”

Moving homes, banning culverts

The changing weather patterns don’t just require new names.

“It requires rethinking how we prepare for disaster events, both structurally but also as a whole community,” Schlegelmilch said. “It’s something that require more than just government intervention. The private sector has a role in this… and individuals may experience more situations where they have to be able to spend some time on their own, and neighbors helping neighbors.”

Floodplains may need to be redrawn. Building codes revised. Storm water systems redesigned.

“The infrastructure that’s built now and in the ground now was built for 40, 50 years ago — or even 10 years ago,” Larkin said. “Now as we move forward and we start to see the potential for more water per storm — maybe fewer storms — that same infrastructure is inadequate to deal with it.”

Urban planners now talk in terms of resiliency: designing communities to withstand both economic and natural disasters.

“If you think about it, it’s self-sufficiency,” said La Crosse planning director Jason Gilman. “We have to build smarter to make the best use of the infrastructure we have and that we’re prepared for potential calamities.”

After being hit in 2008 with the second major flood in less than 10 months, the Crawford County village of Gays Mills undertook an $8 million relocation project, essentially moving half the residents higher ground.

“It’s changing the character of those small towns but it’s making it safer,” said Lori Getter, spokeswoman for Wisconsin Emergency Management, which administered federal mitigation grants to help buy out flooded home and business owners. “It’s cheaper in the long run than having these repetitive flood losses.”

Winona city planner Carlos Espinosa said the impacts of climate change will inform the city’s next comprehensive plan, which is scheduled to be drafted in the next few years and guides development and land use decisions.

In the La Crosse County town of Barre, chairman Ron Reed wants to do away with culverts.

When more than 6 inches of rain fell over La Crosse County in less than 12 hours on the night of July 19, a dry creek in Drectrah Coulee swelled into a raging current that took out culverts on three of his town roads. Water got under one culvert, bending the eight-foot diameter corrugated steel pipe up into the air.

Reed said the town should require developers to build concrete bridges over creeks if they want the public to bear the maintenance costs.

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Runoff from rain on July 19, 2017, bent an eight-foot drainage culvert in Drectrah Coulee in the town of Barre.

“That particular culvert should have been a bridge,” he said. “There’s no reason why we should have to take all that expense.”

Rolling the dice

But change isn’t happening everywhere.

Climate change has not been a factor in updates to the planning and zoning ordinance in Winona County, one of the hardest hit places in the 2007 floods.

“We’re talking about making changes, but it isn’t in response to flooding,” said planning committee chairman Eugene Hanson.

In the aftermath of the 2007 flood, Winona County’s Soil and Water Conservation District received state funding to repair erosion. While grateful for the help, district manager Daryl Buck said he told state officials, “Please don’t forget us when the flood is gone.”

Yet Buck said the agency has not received funding for any new storm water retention ponds or grade stabilization projects that could make a difference in slowing down runoff.

In Minnesota, special watershed districts are given the power to manage water in areas that generally span multiple municipalities. But despite this authority, the Stockton-Rollingstone-Minnesota City Watershed District has not undertaken any special projects to alleviate flooding in communities like Stockton, which has been hit repeatedly by floods, said Lew Overhaug, a Winona County land use planner who serves as the district’s technical adviser.

When it comes to road and bridge design, engineers rely on 25- and 100-year flood probability models, which La Crosse County Highway Commissioner Ron Chamberlain said increasingly feel outdated.

“We fairly routinely poke fun at the idea of a hundred-year event because it seems to be about every year or every other year,” Chamberlain said.

But without proof to show lawmakers, the funding simply isn’t there to build for higher standards.

“You can’t afford to put in every culvert at the hundred-year event,” he said. “You don’t have that kind of money.”

Urban planners face a similar challenge in setting standards for subdivisions, where a storm water system designed to handle the biggest storms might make the project infeasible to build or maintain.

“Walking the fine line between adequate design and over-design is always a conundrum,” Gilman said.

Ironically, there’s a greater political risk to playing it safe than trying to prevent disasters.

“When it happens generally the folks in power say we have to help the good people of X community recover, and they’ll pass assistance packages,” Larkin said. “It’s not very politically desirable to say we have to help the people of X community prevent damage. You’re sort of rolling the dice there.”

'The water is rising'

While moving and raising homes is expensive, it does pay off, according to a 2005 cost-benefit study by the Multihazard Mitigation Council, a coalition of engineers, builders, insurance and other professionals. That study found that every dollar spent saves society about $4 in costs. 

“It cuts down on the response and recovery they have to go through every time there’s a disaster,” council director Philip Schneider said.

Recognizing the strains on government budgets, that group is now exploring a private-public model for funding structural improvements designed to make buildings that can better withstand floods, wildfires, hurricanes and rising seas.

Schneider said the organization is hoping to convince lenders, insurers and government agencies to help underwrite such improvements, which would in turn lower their risks and costs.

But for now there is not a centralized governmental approach to this type of planning.

“It all happens on the local level,” said Amber Schindeldecker, spokeswoman for Minnesota’s office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, which has not reported an increase in applications for hazard mitigation projects.

Schlegelmilch, of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, said the politics of climate change have hamstrung discussions at the state and national level.

“We need to use code words, like ‘extreme events’ and things like that in order to just have the conversation,” he said. “In such a polarized environment, it keeps us from coming up with real solutions…. Ultimately these problems are so big and so pervasive across the country that we need to have a grown up conversation at the national level. And it requires more than 140 characters to really play these themes out.”

Meanwhile, emergency response professionals are focused on sounding the alarm, regardless of the cause.

“Whether the gods are angry at us or human caused climate change, there’s a lot of arguments to be made for everybody to figure that out,” Larkin said. “But I’m telling you the water’s rising and we have to do something about it.”

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Rhymes with Lubbock. La Crosse Tribune reporter and data geek. Covers energy, transportation and the environment, among other things. Call him at 608-791-8217.

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