Is Central Ohio’s Flood Control Adequate?

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Alum Creek Dam: Part of Central Ohio's flood control system
Alum Creek Dam: Part of Central Ohio's flood control system

Flooding along the Mississippi River has already caused $1.5 billion in damage. With more and more levees failing, more devastation is expected. Central Ohio’s levee system – and the Scioto River – are small in comparison. But is major flooding possible here?

Every day thousands of cars and trucks on state route 315 in Columbus drive through an opening in the Franklinton flood wall. Building the wall and levee system took 11 years and cost 140 million dollars. Rick Tilton speaks for the city department that oversees the wall and levee.

“The main protection against flooding for a large rain event would be the Franklinton flood wall. That was built in the 1990s and was really designed to handle a 500-year flood,” Tilton says.

Mississippi River levees in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri are now handing massive amounts of water. So much water that it’s washing over some of them, and causing breaches in others. Thousands of residents have been forced to evacuate.

The Franklinton flood wall and levee system is one of only a few in central Ohio. There are smaller versions in the Newark, Zanesville, and Chillicothe areas. The Army Corps of Engineers’ David Humphries says each was built with a high margin of safety.

“They all protect above the 100 what would be considered the 1% chance flood event,” Humphries says. “That does not mean that a flood can exceed that level only once every 100 years, it just means that in the period of record hydrologically, this basin, you’ve got a 1 in 100 chance of a certain elevation being achieved during a peak discharge event. But I can tell you that West Columbus and Chillicothe; both those flood walls were constructed above the 100 year the 1 percent chance of flood along the Scioto River.”

Had the Franklinton flood wall been in place in 1913, it might have prevented the infamous flood of that year when a levee broke near downtown Columbus. Waters from the Scioto and Olentangy Rivers inundated the Franklinton area. As many as 100 people died, 3 bridges were washed away and 4,000 homes were destroyed.

The flood wall and levee now protect 2800 acres stretching 7-and-a-quarter miles from Grandview south to Route 104. But is there a chance that the Franklinton flood wall might be topped? The City’s Rick Tilton.

“If you had an event we’ve seen in Iowa, there’s not a whole lot you can do. Storm sewer systems in this country are simply not designed to handle that degree of rain over and over and over,” Tilton says.

“But in central Ohio there are other flood control measures that the Corps employs. David Humphries says dams on Alum Creek, Deer Creek and Paint Creek help reduce the chance of flooding.

“Ohio is rich in the lake projects and lakes simply hold back water and release it over time therefore you reduce the flood risk; you take that same water and you just spread that over time so that you don’t have peak discharges and flooding.”

The City of Columbus owns the Franklinton flood wall and city crews inspect it every 90 days. The Corps of Engineers does its own inspection annually. Humphries says he looks for unauthorized changes in the wall and levee, vegetation that should and should not be there, cracks and holes.

“I’m the guy that walks that levee. I pretend I’m one of the citizens of that town for one day, I walk that levee and pretend that I’m the most critical old lady on Main Street. I look at every little thing on there and say, Hey this isn’t right or this isn’t right.’ I’m looking for every blemish and every boil from one end to the other.”

Humphries says ‘risk is a variable thing.’ He says the Corps considered the economic benefits, the amount of protection, the heaviest floods, and other factors when it built the Franklinton flood wall.

Meanwhile the White House is asking Congress for $1.8 billion in emergency disaster aid for the flood-ravaged Midwest.

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