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Treading Water?

In the wake of 1998's floods, Knoxville's still figuring out how to keep First Creek neighborhoods dry

by Chris Neal

William Tharp watches the skies more carefully than most. When rains blanketed the area during the first week of May, "We were nervous as hell," he says.

That's because at this time last year, the Fountain City resident was dealing with the devastating effects of the worst flooding the area had seen in years. His family room and office were under 15 inches of water, following heavy spring storms.

It wasn't the first flood Tharp had dealt with during the 40 years he has lived on Essary Road. After repeatedly threatening to flood over the decades, his house was swamped in 1982. This began 17 years of regular letter-writing to three Knoxville mayors, with what Tharp says were minimal results. "They made all sorts of damn excuses," he says. "They sent out special investigators who'd shake their head and leave and that's the extent of it."

Tharp was far from the only Knoxvillian whose life was upended last spring when Knox and many other counties across East Tennessee were bombarded with rains, resulting in widespread property damage and injuries.

"I'd say the flooding last year was probably the worst since 1982," says Bob Whetsel, Knoxville public service director and chairman of the First Creek Task Force, assembled last year as a response to the floods. "We had five rains that ended up getting the creeks out of their banks." Two concentrated rainfalls in April caused perhaps the worst damage. Whetsel cites the flooding in Fountain City on the weekend of April 17, when "one hour (of rain) did what several days would ordinarily do. Within an hour there were a lot of streets flooded, a lot of buildings."

Now, one year later, residents are wondering what's being done to either prevent or alleviate future flooding, especially after a spate of heavy April and May storms. With Mayor Victor Ashe allocating some $3 million to the problem in his proposed budget, it would appear to be high on the city's agenda. But to make real changes in the city's flood patterns, Whetsel warns, "[it] is not going to be easy, it's not going to be cheap, and it's not going to be quick," citing a figure in the $20 million range as a possible cost for a major project to curb flooding.

"Last year was a disaster, literally," says Knoxville City Councilwoman Carlene Malone. After the floods, Malone responded to an invitation from Tharp to come and see the damage to his home. "Anyone who looked could see the problem," Malone says, citing insufficient culverts in the area. "It's city infrastructure that's the problem, it's not his house that's the problem." Six inches of the drain along Essary was scooped out afterward, but "it wasn't enough," Tharp says now. Malone finally had good news for Tharp a few weeks ago: she secured $75,000 from the city to pay for flood-control measures on Essary, including Tharp's home, along with $60,000 for the Alice Bell community. "After seeing the devastation," Malone says, "and the damage to roads, and people's entire belongings underwater, I felt I needed to do the best I could do to get these projects moving."

After last spring's floods, Whetsel says, "there were a lot of citizens who turned to the government saying, 'Let's not have this happen again.' The City Council and the mayor heard the citizens' concerns last year." The city's most immediate response, he says, was to clean out the brush and other vegetation slowing down the water flow of swollen creeks, a project completed over the course of last summer. Currently, says Whetsel, "The culverts along First Creek are in good shape. They're 80 to 90 percent clear." Malone allows that the city has "been more energetic about (cleaning out the creeks) than they have been in past years." Still, she says, "If the storms were to reoccur, would we be in significantly better condition than we were a year ago? I don't know."

As for the whole of Knoxville, Ashe has offered a budget proposal bearing millions in money for flood-control measures. For the most part, he wants the $3 million to begin Phase II of the First Creek Flood Control Plan. The First Creek Task Force (consisting of Deputy Mayor Gene Patterson, Finance Director Randy Vineyard, City Engineer Sam Parnell, and KUB's Bill Elmore as well as citizen representatives Ellen Keim, Mark Williamson, and Joseph King) will be recommending just how that money should be spent.

Whetsel says the task force is "still in the midst of determining what recommendation to make...We're getting real close to getting that information back." It will be another 45 days before engineers retrieve enough information to finish a conceptual study, he says. The group is examining several different major options, which Whetsel refers to as the "big three": making improvements to flood channels; reestablishing the flood plain by purchasing properties and modifying the land itself (which could include voluntary buy-outs of home-owners); and creating storm-water ordinances for new development.

Currently, he says, "We're just trying to get a plan together to move things forward, and I think we'll get that." Whetsel says the city might also get flood-control money from the federal Housewater Resource Development Act, currently winding its way through Congress.

Phase II of the plan covers the area of the city south of Interstate 640; Phase III is Fountain City. Ashe also proposes $250,000 for smaller drainage problems across the city and the hiring of six city employees to attend to storm sewer installation and drainage improvement projects in problem areas. The workers will respond to calls about structure troubles first, then roadway obstructions, then general flooding.

Beyond providing long overdue help to constituents, the mayor's flood-control proposal could also factor into his political fate in this election year. "I think it was very important politically, as well as, frankly, just morally, to continue to address the flooding problem," Malone says. "People were frustrated and angry. The flooding problem hadn't been addressed in 12 to 15 years. People knew it was unreasonable for a city not to address these problems, and they're not getting over it."

Malone is cautiously optimistic about Ashe's flood-control proposal. "We would have all liked more," she says, "but in all fairness to the mayor and the taxpayers of the city of Knoxville, I don't think you could move a whole lot faster without causing some serious budgetary concerns. I think the idea, which is a good idea, is to come up with a design which will work, and each year implement that design so that we make moderate progress on an annual basis with a fixed goal in mind." When physical work begins on Phase II, for instance, the design for Phase III would be ready. The $3 million in Ashe's budget, Malone says, "is really just a down payment. We're talking millions and millions more that are going to be needed. There is no way financially we could make up for 15 years of doing little or nothing in a two-year period."

Malone suggests that the city should also revisit its ordinance pertaining to new development and may eventually have to consider an annual storm-water fee. "I think the day will come when that is necessary," she says. "It's a fair way of doing it, because you pay according to your contribution to the problem." The money would stockpile during dry years, to be used during inevitable times of crisis. Malone says the idea met with a positive reaction during budget surveys.

Of course, Knox Countians outside the city were also hard hit by last year's flooding, especially houses and businesses along Beaver Creek tributaries. "For the most part," says county storm water management coordinator Chris Granju, "our crews were able to get out with sandbags and pumps and keep the damage from being worse than it could have been." From county residents, "There was not as much (negative public response) as you might think, but we did get a lot." In response, his own department reevaluated its procedures in flooding events, but the largest county project to prevent future flood calamities was already well underway.

"For the past three years, we've been involved in a flood storm water management analysis program," explains Granju. "We've been looking, with a consultant, at the storm water program, how they respond to requests, and how to do it better."

The county Engineering and Public Works Department is also studying Ten Mile Creek, which winds in and out of the city and county, and Beaver Creek, which lies entirely outside Knoxville; the department intends to update the Federal Emergency Management Agency flood management plans for those areas. Watershed studies should be done by the end of the year, at which time the county will hold public meetings to get feedback on the progress of the project.

In the meantime, Granju says, Knox County has also been looking at policies and regulations about development in areas that drain sinkholes, and the department is paying closer attention to new development to see that it won't make matters worse. Granju notes also that the county signed an agreement last July with the U.S. Geological Service to establish a county network of rain gauges. "That's a really important part of a program like this...You can gauge what kind of problems you have by how much rain you have," he says.

So far this year, spring has brought only the infrequent storms of the last several weeks. "We don't know how much rain we're going to get," Whetsel says. Granju sighs as he explains that the county can't rely too much on weather predictions, which usually aren't much help for determining whether flooding will actually take place—last year's repeating cycle of storm after storm being a notable exception. "We follow it more in the present and the past than the future," he says. "Last spring there was a weather cycle we were caught in, and that's a different case."

Even if this spring hasn't presented any major flooding problems so far, Malone cautions against complacency. "I think the challenge is going to be making sure that a few dry years don't get us sitting back on our heels. Everyone needs to be vigilant in this regard."

Meanwhile, William Tharp will watch and wait and hope. "I don't want to move," he says. "We live in a wonderful neighborhood. When you spend 40 years in one place, it kind of becomes home, you know what I mean?"