Water Came ‘Out of Nowhere’

Nathan Cawley photo
One of several empty stores in downtown Whiteville that closed after repeated floods. (Nathan Cawley photo)

Whiteville City Manager Darren Currie said officials expected some flooding with Hurricane Idalia.

 “With all the work the city has been doing, there are still going to be situations like tropical systems that bring flooding,” he said Thursday. “We were ready for some flooding, but we really did not expect something like this.”

Whiteville has aggressively pursued grants for flood remediation since before Hurricane Matthew caused millions of dollars in damage through the downtown area in 2016. Some businesses had just reopened, and some residents were still displaced when the second punch of Hurricane Florence caused a repeat in 2018.

Flood remediation. Has been at the forefront of the city’s planning and budget for years.

The city recently established a street maintenance crew whose duties include ditch maintenance on city rights of way. The Coastal Dynamics Lab completed the city’s floodprint, a detailed analysis of floor-prone areas in the city, along with recommendations to reduce damage. The city worked with Progress Energy to move the substation from Franklin Street in Soules Swamp, to help restore wetlands and to prevent extended power outages.

The Mollies Branch drainage project is underway, reopening that waterway to allow more efficient drainage from the west side to Soules Swamp. State and federal home buyout programs will help remove some flood-prone properties in the city, restoring the lots to green space that can absorb rainwater.  City staff has used heavy equipment as well as manpower to remove beaver dams and obstructions along the Soules Swamp run, and Public Works routinely inspects the area for blockages.

Much of the paving in the former Lewis Smith Shopping Center has been removed to allow stormwater to soak into the ground. The oldest shopping center in Whiteville was inundated by Matthew and Florence, as well as a series of heavy rains that preceded Matthew. The former shopping center will eventually be developed as a park, preserving greenspace as well as permeable surfaces that will aid in runoff. When the Felix Smith Park was renovated, it was designed with drainage for the nearby Franklin Street neighborhood in mind. Work was recently completed on lines leading down Frazier and Caldis streets to improve sanitary sewer flow as well as improve wastewater drainage.

In the days before Idalia came to visit, city crews were clearing storm drains and using a vacuum truck to open drainlines. Yard debris that could not be immediately picked up was moved to the right of way, out of gutters, to prevent blocking drains.

“We have been vigilantly working on this for years,” Currie said.

Some high water is inevitable, Currie said, but Idalia’s 9.4 inches of rain in less than 24 hours came down on already-saturated ground, both in the city and upstream.

“That water has to go somewhere,” Currie said.

Thursday morning, Currie said, he drove through the worst of the city’s floodzones and “felt pretty good.

By 9 a.m., he said, that had changed.

“We looked around and the water was rising fast.”

The Flood Information Management Network (FIMAN) gauge on Soules Swamp allows officials rea-time observations of flood conditions. On Wednesday before the storm, the FIMAN read that the swamp at Madison Street was below normal levels.

“We were watching the FIMAN,” Currie said, “and it just kept rising and rising.”

By 9:30 a.m., the  prepositioned barricades and equipment were being deployed to various parts of the city. Heavy equipment continued working along Virgil and Main streets until it became unsafe for crews to continue. The equipment was then moved to high ground to block flooded streets.

“Looking at the radar,” Currie said, “the bands were to our north and northwest. All that water came downstream to Whiteville. And it all came at once.”

Currie praised city staff for their response, even during the height of the storm and the later flooding.

“We had parks and recreation, public works, the fire and police departments, administration people – everybody was out there and they gave it their all,” Currie said. “I was really proud of the way they turned out.”

Currie said he understands the frustrations of property owners and residents who were impacted by Idalia’s flooding. The city is trying to lessen the risk of flood damage as much as possible, but “it can’t be completely stopped.

“When you’re in a flood plain, no matter what you do,” he said, “sometimes it’s going to flood,”

About Jefferson Weaver 2168 Articles
Jefferson Weaver is the Managing Editor of Columbus County News and he can be reached at (910) 914-6056, (910) 632-4965, or by email at [email protected].