City, county officials frustrated by flood conditions

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com
The incessant rain has not triggered an event on the scale of the flood of 1998, but it has drenched nearly every area of Carter County and Elizabethton. Unfortunately, there's little city and county leaders can do except tackle the major problems as they arise, and let the rest slide until dryer times.
Elizabethton City Manager Charles Stahl said Thursday that the city has received a cross-section of complaints due to water problems. "Because there are so many isolated problems, many of them are being addressed by the related departments, if they can be. Some of these complaints are simply beyond our control."
Not only has the rain activity been intense, it has been prolonged; saturating the ground and on Thursday, causing storm sewers to bubble up through manhole covers at Broad and Sycamore streets, according to Stahl.
"At the peak of the rain events, the storm system has been overloaded at various times over the past seven days," he said. "The presumption is the city should or can do something, but in fact, the storm lines are overloaded and are functioning -- other than the fact that they're inundated with more water than they can handle."
There is very little the city can do at this time, he said, "other than to make sure that the storm grates are clear, and that we can respond and help where we can."
Carter County Mayor Dale Fair got a first-hand look at problem areas last Friday after heavy rains hit the west end of the county and Johnson City.
"I went up to the airport, Lynn Valley, Hampton, Rittertown. It's just all over," he said.
The game plan for now, according to Fair, has to be to "major in 'majors' and help people that are having the water get into their houses and into improvements to their property.
"If it's just settling in their yards right now, that's second to people that are actually getting it in their houses. Concentrate on trying to break loose the big places that have dammed up to relieve some of the pressure.
"When you're in the crisis we're in, you just have to concentrate on the major things. And then when it settles down a little bit, you go back. It's kind of like the power company does when they have outages. You concentrate on the major things and then come back and fix the little things later."
Many county residents are pointing fingers at the Carter County Highway Department. But Fair said he believes city and county department heads, including County Highway Superintendent Jack Perkins and his staff, are working hard to help residents deal with the flooding problems.
"You have to do what you have to do, and I'm sure Jack's pulled in 20 different directions right now. He's not making everybody happy because he's not completely fixing their problem, because he's just unstopping things and keeping on going. But it's not just a story of one or two areas," and Perkins is responsible for many miles of roadway throughout the county.
Fair said that in West Carter County last Friday, there were sections of the Milligan Highway that were impassable due to the intensity of water flowing across the roadway.
"We had a big rain last night and it hit Fitzsimmons Hill. Every time it rains now, we have major problems up in Hunter." Sections of Rittertown near Greenbriar Road and Rittertown Baptist Church also have problems, he said. Fair had a stack of paper on his desk detailing areas of the county he planned to visit Friday.
"You can only do so much with the resources that you have," he said. "The more you populate an area, the more problems you have.
"We've got a lady in Hampton, her septic tank is having to be pumped because her back yard is full of water and it just seeps into her septic system. It fills it up and she has no [use of her] septic tank, so she can't take a shower, go to the bathroom or anything.
"She said yesterday if it rains again, 'I'm just going to get in my camper and go, and let the sump pumps work while we're gone, and when we get back then try to fix it.'
"But what do you do right now?" Fair asked. "Everybody's affected by this. It's just an abnormal amount of rainfall in a short period of time." And, of course, there's even more rain in the forecast.
City Manager Stahl said he was reminded of July 3, 2001, "when you had 4 inches of rain in 90 minutes in the west end of the city, and 2.65 inches of rain in the center of the city on the same day."
Given the terrain of the area and the fact that water does run downhill, he said, "it's very hard to build storm sewer systems for major rain events that do not occur often. That's where building codes and zoning codes come into play.
"If people are located in flood zones, they bear some responsibility for where they're at. Similarly, if they're building in the city, it's the building department's job to make sure that they're building in accordance with certain standards that safeguard their property."
New stormwater regulations are being phased in from the federal level so there's more of a mandate upon developers to pay attention to stormwater runoff and the retention of stormwater than ever before, Stahl said. "But those are slow in coming and when you have a community like Elizabethton/Carter County that's built along creeks and rivers, obviously the solution is not an easy one."
Stahl said some city residents are experiencing water problems for the first time, while others are having trouble for the first time in years.
"If you go around town, there are a variety of individuals that have sump pumps that are working. I personally have had water in my basement since [last] Friday on a consistent basis," he said.
"The ground's saturated. Water is standing where it hasn't stood before, and that's not just in residential areas but commercial areas. I think everybody is just hoping for relief."
In areas where the city has made storm drain improvements, such as Powder Branch Road, the drainage system is operating as designed, but there is such an abundance of water it is slow to recede.
"About eight years ago we did the Powder Branch Road project and spent nearly $1 million. If you go and look at Powder Branch Road, it's operating as it was designed. The storm drainage is being handled on the road, but the storm drainage goes to the low point, which typically runs off the low points into creeks, and it's swelling up Powder Branch.
"Quail Hollow subdivision and adjacent areas are taking the brunt of any stormwater runoff, not just from Powder Branch Road itself, but from other developed properties," Stahl said. As a result, small streams, creeks, and low-lying areas are flooding.
"It's a frustrating time for us in government because we don't have any real remedies for solving a rain event that has been excessive by most standards," Stahl said.
"At times there are partially blocked drains that we find and we're able to respond and correct some of those situations, but most of the problems that we're finding right now are just an excessive amount of water over a multiple period of days, and it doesn't have an avenue to go without flooding yards and other properties."