Wildwood Park residents: Build us a berm

Published 10:06 am Tuesday, July 22, 2014

City claims mitigation efforts already protect area

Margie Nelson had about 5 feet of water in her basement during the record flood of 2004.

She also had 2 inches of water in her garage during Austin’s worst flood on record, when the Cedar River overflowed its banks and reached 25.2 feet deep.

She was among more than 25 people from the Wildwood Park neighborhood to ask the Austin City Council Monday to build a berm near their homes north of Interstate 90 and east of the north Hormel Foods corporate office.

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Wildwood Park residents approached Public Works Director Steven Lang last month with a similar request, though Lang said the neighborhood should have already been taken care of through the city’s flood mitigation efforts.

Yet residents fear the city hasn’t done enough to keep their homes safe.

“What about our neighborhood?” she asked the council.

According to resident Michael Weinmann, residents don’t believe city flood maps and studies are accurate enough to protect their homes. Many residents had their basements flooded through their sewer and through underground water during previous floods and don’t think the city’s recent flood efforts have done enough for their homes.

In recent years, the city of Austin bought out 16 of 17 homes along First Street Northeast in the neighborhood through a $2.1 million Federal Emergency Management Agency grant. Lang said the city filled in the basements and turned off the sewer lines of those properties, which should take care of the issue.

A big issue is the natural funnel created by an Interstate 90 bridge over the river. In 2004, water nearly touched the bottom of the bridge and residents are concerned flood mitigation efforts like the North Main Flood Control Project in downtown Austin would push water back into the Wildwood Park area during a storm.

“Our biggest concern is that the water is going to be even closer,” Weinmann said.

An engineering firm hired by the city found the Cedar River would only rise 1 to 1.5 inches north of Interstate 90 due to the North Main Flood Control Project and other city mitigation efforts. In addition, another engineering firm hired by the Cedar River Watershed District confirmed those projections.

Those figures were estimates based on trends found in the firm’s hydraulic evaluation — the way to figure out how water moves through an area. Floods can still happen based on a variety of weather and soil factors, according to Lang, which can make estimating how a river changes difficult.

Lang told the crowd the city’s efforts are to prevent surface water damage during floods. Though some residents were angry the city built berms and flood walls near apartments and businesses in downtown Austin, Lang said the city’s work was designed to help as many residents as possible by moving the water downriver without allowing it to spill over.

“We don’t want to create the problem somewhere else,” he said. “We want to alleviate it for everyone as best we can.”

Yet Lang expressed concerns about building a berm in Wildwood Park. He told the council several neighborhoods had similar requests as residents feared what would happen if they lived close to the river.

Should the council approve a berm in Wildwood Park, the city would likely have to address 17 other neighborhoods, which the city wouldn’t be able to fund for several years.

“We have to draw the line somewhere,” Lang said.

Mayor Tom Stiehm and council members told the crowd the city would research the issue.