Franklin County’s history is flooded with ... well, floods.
And a longtime emergency official said a major summer flood is always a possibility in the area because of the local weather pattern.
Alan Radcliffe, Franklin County emergency preparedness director, said county agencies are prepared to deal with floods. City and county officials have special training exercises dealing with flood issues, he said. A few years ago, officials went through a three-day training in which they strategized using the 1951 flood numbers, which set the all-time watermark for flooding, Radcliffe said.
At that time, the Marais des Cygnes River crested at 43 feet and nearly all of Ottawa dealt with high water. The infamous 1951 flood was the main reason for Ottawa building its levee system.
“We still do exercises and training, have meetings in case one of the levees break,” he said. “We could see the 1951 flood again if our levees break.”
The last major flood occurred 10 years ago this month when about 11 inches of rain fell during a week’s time in the Ottawa area from June 26 to July 2. The river crested at 41 feet, which was the third-highest since records have been kept.
The levee system saved the city’s downtown area and most neighborhoods, but several locations inside the city and the county were not so lucky. In 2007, the area received so much rain in a quick amount of time that the floodgates along the levee shutdown and the pumps were deluged, Radcliffe said.
“That created flooding within the city,” he said. “The floods like 2007 can happen at any time. It depends on how the storm system sets up. One of the things the National Weather Service has talked about the last few years, our storms are more aggressive, are stronger storms and do more damage.”
Spring 2007 saw heavy rain throughout the Midwest. The Marais des Cygnes River crested at 34 feet in early May after a storm and the Ottawa area was still drying out when the late June thunderstorms hit.
“It the was kind of year that does not happen very often,” Radcliffe said. “It was the year of the Greensburg tornado. When we were having our flooding, there were 44 counties in the state flooding also.”
Parts of Ottawa and Franklin County had standing water. East Third Street around the Don Woodward Community Center was surrounded. Lincoln Street on the southeast side of Ottawa around Ninth street was closed for several days. K-68 and Eisenhower roads became impassible. The K-68 and Main Street intersection in Ottawa was closed and many county roads were under water for days.
The city of Lane — which had reports of more than 17 inches of rain — was inundated with floodwater.
“At one point, with the way all the creeks, streams and rivers had road blocked off, we could not get to Lane from Ottawa,” Radcliffe said. “We had to go to around. One time I made it to Lane and my only way back to Ottawa was through Paola.”
There were news reports of vehicles sliding off I-35 because of high water. There were water rescues as houses at 2100 Ohio and 1900 and 2000 K-68, plus others, were flooded. Several vehicles were stranded and people rescued after trying to drive through the high water.
“People don’t realize a major flood in our county is more of a traffic issue because water goes over some of the roads,” he said. “If people will abide by the signs that are out. Typically we have somebody say ‘I can make it through that water.’ We tell them to turn around and don’t drown. They always think, ‘I made it through an hour ago and I can make it through now,’ not knowing the water may be running more swiftly or deeper. Or part of the road washed away. That is our biggest problem, you can’t see what’s under the water.”
Radcliffe said city and county crews did a good job of putting out road closure signs during the flood. The 2007 flood was one of the few times the American Red Cross came and opened a temporary shelter at Celebration Hall on the Franklin County Fairgrounds, he said.
“There were several homes that got flooded that typically don’t,” Radcliffe said.
Franklin County was declared a Federal Disaster Area by President George W. Bush.
Local agencies are always concerned about safety in weather-related events, Radcliffe said.
“We are always looking at the flood plain maps, working with zoning and planning to make sure we have everything covered for the safety of our [residents],” he said. “After the flooding event occurred [in 2007], we made some changes in the zoning regulations again. Hopefully, that is not an issue in the future. Weather-related events is one of top hazards in the county. Those are things we prepare for. We have a county emergency operations plan for the times that does happen. Our office works preparing everybody beforehand. Our office is to coordinate with all the other agencies to make sure we are getting everything covered to make sure people in our county are safe.”
Ottawa officials continuously check to ensure the levees are up to code, Radcliffe said.
“The city of Ottawa works hard at making sure those levees are maintained to the requirements of the Corp of Engineers and FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency],” he said. “They do the inspections and certifications. They always have crews out on the bridges keeping the debris from flowing under [when river is high]. A lot of times when they close the gates on Main Street, they have to leave them closed because part of their plan is they have an engineer come in and inspect the bridge to make sure it is safe to traffic again. They do a good job.”
Wynndee Lee, interim city manager in 2007, said the city puts a high priority on maintaining and inspecting the levee system. She said the Corp of Engineers inspects the levee each year, plus other inspections happen after each high water event. She said in July of 2007 the city was in the middle of a levy certification.
“Since that time, because of the levy certification process, we have strengthened a few areas,” she said. “We replaced an area that was identified as a long-term failure. It was reinforced. We improved some of our procedures through that levy certification. It does put us in position to be more prepared.”
The 2007 flood showed officials the levy system was strong and worked the way it was designed, Lee said.
“It was a good situation in a sense that the levee did its job in securing the city,” Lee said. “It was a good test for an emergency drill. We did not have terrible damage. We had some homes that had water in them. We learned from it.”
Radcliffe and Lee warned flooding can still happen in this area. Just because water might have never reached a certain spot in the city before does not mean it can’t happen in the future, Lee said.
“It takes everything to add up to where we have some issues,” Radcliffe said. “I still believe as long as the levies hold, Ottawa is in pretty good shape. So far, it has held.”