Fenwick gets serious about flooding woes

In the wake of severe tidal flooding caused by the recent nor’easter, the Fenwick Island Town Council voted unanimously (5-0, with Mayor Peter Frederick and Council Member Martha Keller absent) Oct. 28 to put a focus on the town’s flooding problems.

The problem of recurrent flooding is nothing new in the town, but previous studies haven’t seen much action and attempts to improve drainage in the town have had little impact on the larger problem.

The latest push to alleviate the flooding came with a statement from Council Member Vicki Carmean at the Oct. 28 meeting.

She said residents had begun a petition drive to encourage the council to follow through with efforts to fix the problem. With 107 homes one of the most severely affected areas — Dagsboro Street and Schultz Road — Carmean said she meant to continue with the petition project until every property owner there had signed it.

Further, Carmean said she was not asking council members to sign the petition themselves, instead seeking to preserve the appearance that their actions on the issue were not motivated by the self-interest of their own properties in that area.

While the Oct. 24 nor’easter brought the flooding problem to a worst-ever-recorded level with 3 feet of rise in 24 hours, according to the town’s tidal gauge at Madison Street, most comments on the issue acknowledged that the resulting flood was a fluke and shouldn’t be the mark for measuring the town’s response.

Instead, several recent measurements of 2 to 2.5 feet on the gauge (above mean high tide) were the hallmarks that really brought the issue to a head. Haon said there had been eight incidents of rises 2 feet or greater (again, above high tide) in the last two years, with 19 additional incidents of such magnitude in the last four years. And two weeks prior to the nor’easter, a 2.5-foot rise had been recorded.

Carmean said the flooding was really becoming a monthly problem, as astronomical high tides pulled the water into the town.

The result has been that a number of residents have been stranded in their homes – sometimes for days. And with the town’s year-round population running toward retirees, that means medical emergencies could be doubly difficult to deal with, in addition to the inconvenience of being trapped at home when a doctor’s appointment is scheduled.

Carmean said the problem had larger effects of environmental and economic impact, costing residents money when they couldn’t go to work or operate their businesses and leaving debris in their yards when the waters receded.

Additionally, she said, those determined enough to drive their vehicles through the floodwaters were faced with the resulting repair costs from damage caused by the brackish water. And landscaping in the area was also costly, with plants damaged or killed by the same salt-infused bay waters. (There, Council Member Chris Clark took umbrage, citing the foolishness of landscaping near the bay with plants that were not salt-tolerant.)

At the root of the problem, Carmean said, was that the town’s storm drains were allowing bay water to flow back up into the streets when tides were significantly high, and that some of the canal bulkheads are simply too low — some with drainage ditches on either side that also allow the water to flow right onto the town’s streets.

And, Carmean noted, even if the town were to solve an immediate problem with drains, it still had to accept the fact that the mean sea level had risen 6 inches since the legendary 1962 storm that carved the Ocean City Inlet and devastated the entire coastal area.

Carmean said she felt the town’s public works department had worked diligently in the previous three years to alleviate the problem but that limited funds and direction had been provided. She insisted a street-flooding improvement project should be made a priority for the town.

Council Member Theo Brans seconded the suggestion, noting two severe floods on his own, lesser-affected, street (and its 88 residences) in the previous three weeks. He cited successful flood mitigation in his homeland of the Netherlands and said Fenwick Island should make a study of its flooding problems a priority — above that of a new or refurbished town hall (currently under study).

Brans said a study was vital to prevent wasting money on “Band-Aid” measures that wouldn’t solve the larger problem.

Council Member Audrey Serio — returning to council meetings for the first time after a long absence while recuperating from a fall — agreed that the water had been higher in the wake of the October nor’easter than she had ever seen and that the problem needed to be addressed.

Serio said the town had tried to get information to deal with the problem in the past. “Unless we have the money and permission to do what we need to do,” she said, the results would be the same.

The source of the flooding has been hotly debated, with some focusing on sporadic street flooding due to heavy rain and others emphasizing ongoing problems with tidal flooding from the bay. (Both often coincide, when storms arrive.)

Carmean said she felt the public works department had been unfairly blamed for not making enough of a difference with their efforts to fight the flooding. The real problem was from the bay, she insisted.

Haon also sought to clarify the department’s work — it was intended to improve drainage for flooding from rain, he said, not to address tidal flooding. And the latter problem was of an altogether different magnitude, he added.

“There is no magic bullet” for tidal flooding, Haon said. Instead, attacking the problem will require solutions that involve more than the public streets and rights-of-way and go into private property, he noted.

But Haon also supported a focus on improving the problem, advocating a study of particular trouble spots.

“We ought to look at some places in town to see what we can do,” he said.

And Haon pushed for a global solution — one that would take into account the effect of small changes in one location on the overall situation in the town as a whole and, hopefully, prevent a small solution from creating a larger problem somewhere else.

“If you plug up holes, the water will go somewhere else,” he said. “This may require some changes in private property.”

Carmean again pointed to low bulkheads, wondering aloud how neighboring South Bethany had managed to get uniform bulkheads on its canals while Fenwick Island’s bulkheads vary in height between properties.

Clark, while generally supporting study of the problem, pushed the responsibility for handling ongoing problems onto residents. Along with the landscaping advice, he said they should be monitoring the town’s tide gauge (available on its Web site at fenwickisland.org, and three hours delayed) to determine when they should leave during times of flood, to avoid being trapped.

Parking cars at the ends of streets and being equipped with rubber boots would help in some cases, he said. Those property owners had bought homes along the bay, he opined, and they should be prepared for flooding, because it was bound to happen.

Known for his environmental focus and disdain for hard surfaces in construction, Clark pointed the finger to just such a problem as being at the root of increasing flooding. He said the more development that happened in the county, the more pavement that was laid, resulting in more flooding as water ran out of places to go.

Clark said the costs of solving the flooding problem were bound to be astronomical but he stopped short of saying the town shouldn’t look into doing so. Instead, he advocated study of the problem to ensure that the attempted solution was fair for all and didn’t fix one area while leaving others to continue to deal with flooding.

Serio said she felt a total solution might not be possible.

“There may always be some water on Dagsboro Street,” she said. But, “It’s time to bite the bullet,” she concluded, saying they owed it to all property owners in the town to do an extensive study and get some final answers to the question of whether the situation could be improved. If not, the town needed experts to say so to its citizens, she said.

Brans said he felt some property owners would oppose paying for improvements because they didn’t think there was a problem with flooding.

“We have people who have lived here their whole lives and they deny it,” he said.

Council members opened the floor for public input, and resident Wayne Carmean said he thought the solution to some of the town’s problems could turn out to be the cause of others.

“The drain pipes filter water back up into the streets,” Wayne Carmean pointed out, referring to the pipes intended to drain rainwater from the town’s roads. “The solution becomes the problem.”

Wayne Carmean suggested the town consider raising its streets and place pipes under them to allow water to flow. The raised streets would at least allow people to get out in an emergency, he said.

Haon reminded him that, in an emergency, the police department and Public Works Supervisor Neil Hanrahan both had trucks capable of fording floodwaters to get someone out. Wayne Carmean replied wryly, “I don’t want to be hauled out in the back of Neil’s truck,” noting that he’d rather be taken out by ambulance, in a medical emergency.

Residents also remarked on the potential for a domino effect if the initial solution would be to raise streets — the water would then flow onto properties at lower levels, requiring them to be raised, and so on…

But with a consensus among residents and council members at the meeting, the council voted unanimously to make flooding a priority for future budgeting in the town — including looking into a study that could become a framework for any improvements.