Flood help plea goes to D.C.

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 8, 2001

The city wants residents to know they are working for a solution to the local flooding situation.

Tuesday, May 08, 2001

The city wants residents to know they are working for a solution to the local flooding situation. And working on it means "now" instead of "later."

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On May 16 and 17, three city officials – Mayor Bonnie Rietz; Kermit Mahan, director of the city Housing and Redevelopment Authority; and Jon Erichson, director of public works – will be traveling to Washington, D.C., to speak to chairmen and members of the Senate and House appropriations committees about funding for flood relief.

Details of the trip were presented to members of the City Council and city staff during a work session before Monday’s council meeting.

According to Mahan, U.S. Rep. Gil Gutknecht invited Austin representatives to speak to Congress in light of possible available federal funding for 2002 to the tune of $18 million for flooding mediation efforts.

"Is that enough for the state’s problems? Heavens, no," City Administrator Pat McGarvey said, "but no one community will walk away with the whole allocation."

The city of Austin will present a $5 million budget for the acquisition and relocation of 79 homes. Those homes are first on a priority list created by city staff, based on the amount and frequency of flooding the homeowners have experienced.

The homes listed are predominantly in the southeast portion of Austin, from the 300 to 600 blocks of Third to Ninth avenues, and in the northeast portion of Austin, along First, Third and Fourth streets.

Former Councilwoman Alice Snater came to the meeting as a proponent of home acquisition.

"It’s a lot of work, but it has turned out to be a very good financial move," she said. "I don’t know of anyone who’s moved out who’s not happy." Snater herself experienced several floods before her home was acquired and she relocated out of the flood plain.

Mahan said the city has make a conscious effort to prepare for future disasters.

"Through our research we have come to realize there are pre-emptive plans for buyout," Mahan said. "The Corps of Engineers and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) have very special qualifiers that need to be in place prior to any funding. We’re exploring those avenues."

An Army Corps of Engineers program previously executed in Birmingham, Ala., and a FEMA program are two programs the city is looking into. Only with the qualifiers in place will the city be able to take advantage of these programs. The FEMA program is a five- to seven-year pre-emptive plan in which possible solutions are studied and then executed.

"It’s always prudent to maximize your options," Mahan said of the programs the city is looking into.

"I want the people of Austin to know the HRA and the City Council have done what a lot of cities haven’t done," Third Ward Councilman Dick Lang said. But he added one caveat: "I don’t want this to go another 30 years."

Erichson said the Corps is going ahead with an update of the 1979 Austin study, but he advised the council and mayor that the Corps will be looking at non-structural alternatives for Austin.

If the city doesn’t receive the $5 million from the federal government it will be asking for, Mahan said the HRA would "encourage structural solutions."

Structural solutions were on the mind of First Ward Councilman Wayne Goodnature, however.

"I’m no longer convinced there isn’t something in the form of levees we should consider."

Goodnature admitted he is not an engineer and cannot assess if such a solution would be feasible, but he saw reasons to protect the area near the Eagles Club.

"I’m more interested in protecting the property for business purposes rather than one business over another," he said. He added the council should look into working on the watershed, an idea he raised at last month’s city-county meeting.

"If we look at structural solutions, we’ll have to look at other sources of funding," Erichson said.

Mahan stated the city does not have the authority to change anything in the flood plain or floodway without the permission of the Army Corps and FEMA.

"The city is not authorized to build levees, dikes, dams, whatever. (The Corps and FEMA) have very restrictive thresholds," Mahan said. "Even if the city had the funds, it couldn’t spend them unless they received permission from those two to do it."

However, fixing what already exists does not require FEMA or Corps approval, obviously. The city voted to approve $16,300 in repairs to the Cedar River and East Side Lake dams. According to Erichson, the damage, which will require grouting to the walls and undersides of the dams, is from the July 10, 2000, flood.

Call Kevira Mertha at 434-2233 or e-mail her at newsroom@austindailyherald.com.