OGDEN — Despite being miles away from the Cape Fear River and the Intracoastal standing water on the roads in the Ogden area is a common sight; in extreme weather events like Hurricane Florence and even Dorian, flooding can get overwhelming fast.
Flooding in the Ogden area, located about seven miles from downtown Wilmington, was widely documented on social media last week. Drone footage circulated of Torchwood Boulevard and its connecting streets underwater; photos of residents kayaking down the road were shared, just hours after the storm began.
The images from Hurricane Florence were much more devastating as water crept into homes in the area destroying entire first floors. That storm was much more devastating to the area than Dorian — but even the average afternoon thunderstorm still poses a concern for residents and county staff alike.
So what gives? Why is flooding such a seemingly common occurrence in the area?
According to New Hanover County Engineer Jim Iannucci, there are a number of problems that have led to the so-called ‘Torchwood flooding.’
When it came to Hurricane Florence a number of factors led to the high waters and damages to resident’s homes including clogged storm drains, previous ground saturation and heavy rains, and lots of sediment, he said. These include clogging of local waterways and the rapid development of the region.
Smith Creek is the fastest flowing creek in the area, according to Iannucci, and when trees and sediment build up, waters rise. The heavy rains preceding Florence did not help matters since the ground was already soaked water had nowhere to run off to around the Smith Creek watershed.
The rains also helped weaken the tree root structures in the area leading to several of them falling into the creek — stopping water flow like a dam. It wasn’t just at the creek though, trees downed across the county on residents properties fell into stormwater ditches and ponds leading to even more of a backup.
While mother nature is to blame for the rains, it is not just nature that has caused the flooding.
With thousands of homes being built and already constructed in the region, impermeable surfaces mean rainwater isn’t absorbed, quickly running off into streets or onto other properties. The county does have stormwater regulations in place for new developments, Iannucci said, but there are some neighborhoods in the area that were built before the more strict guidelines were implemented.
But even with the creation of retention ponds and stormwater systems, massive rain events like Florence and Dorian can dump a lot of water in a small area in very little time. This can lead to flooding due to the overwhelming amount of water being forced into an area over little time.
“They [stormwater systems] are designed for 8-inches in 24 hours, 2-inches in an hour is going to overwhelm the systems,” he said.
When you have a so-called 100-year storm that dumps 10-inches of rain over 24-hours or a Florence type of event where numbers were even higher, flooding is always going to be a risk.
What’s being done?
There’s no question that the flooding is a serious issue and New Hanover County is working to find solutions, not just for the Torchwood area, but all over the county.
Solving drainage issues is not as simple as pulling the plug out of a bathtub — and it’s not cheap either. The county did receive some money from the federal government through the Emergency Watershed Protection Program (EWP) following Hurricane Matthew, according to Iannucci. With those funds, the county was able to do some vegetative removal from Smith Creek.
County staff is also working with different groups and agencies to help solve some of the stormwater issues facing residents, but for now, it’s not just up to the county to fix these issues.
New Hanover County does not have a dedicated stormwater utility or staff that are tasked with keeping storm drains clear and making improvements. Instead, HOAs and homeowners are generally responsible for taking care of these issues — but that might be changing soon.
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The county is considering the addition of a stormwater utility that would be responsible for solving these types of issues.
“A stormwater utility would allow the county to manage stormwater runoff to help reduce flooding and impacts to water quality,” Iannucci said in a press release sent in July. “It would create a flexible way to plan and pay for resilient water management practices, and allow New Hanover County to provide a higher level of service to our residents and businesses.”
It would require a payment from county residents to fund new positions, but everything collected would be spent on stormwater solutions. Plans for the service will likely be presented to the Board of County Commissioners in December, Iannucci said.
For now, residents are reminded to clean any debris from ditches in their yards and let the county know of any major blockages (you can find contact info here). It might take some time to resolve the flooding issues in Ogden, but if the county does approve the stormwater utiltity it will provide the necessary funding to continue working on resolving the flooding issues.
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