Cleanup mostly complete

Jason Ferguson
It’s been over a year since a massive influx of rain (up to seven inches, by some accounts) poured down on the French Creek watershed and subsequently led to a flood that reached 100-year levels, causing extensive damage to both public and private property.
Most of the cleanup and reconstruction to be done by governmental entities was done in the year that has passed, with city planning administrator Tim Hartmann saying, save for some wood chips for the Gates Park playground and a little bit of debris, the city has been cleaned up.
“I think we made good strides getting things cleaned up,” he said.
The cleanup was no small feat. Many feet of fencing were replaced, including at Gates Park and between the well house and Big D on Mount Rushmore Road. Road washouts in the approaches to bridges on south 4th and south 7th streets had to be repaired, and fencing and sand had to be replaced at Harbach Park. That doesn’t include the myriad debris that had to be cleaned up.
Hartmann said the foot bridge at Harbach Park was never repaired because of the planned improvements (and grant funding) anticipated there. At Gates Park, the playground isn’t operational yet because of the need for the chips, which Hartmann said have been ordered.
Hartmann said the green fence at the baseball field near Custer High School is gone for good, although a different, more floodplain-friendly fence may be constructed at some point. The community garden near Wazi Lane and Hwy. 16, which frequently gets flooded due to its proximity to French Creek, will be moved to a location near the school campuses.
“It was a big event,” Hartmann said. “It affected a lot of properties.”
The flooding ravaged some county roads, including Lower and Upper French Creek roads, America Center Road and others, including roads as far east as near Fairburn.
The road repairs have long since been completed, with county highway superintendent Jesse Doyle saying the biggest delay on repairs was at Lower French Creek, as needed culverts couldn’t be obtained right away due to extensive flooding across the state last year.
When the road was repaired, Doyle said some adjustments were made, including one that would see the water hopefully overflow onto a different area than where the water crossed and damaged the road. The hope is that it will prevent the road from washing out during future flood events.
Doyle has also been at the front of an effort to change some of the creek crossings outside of town, including the one at Granite Heights Road, which he said the county plans to undertake. He again cautioned that no matter what is done to the roads, that doesn’t change the fact that some roads and homes are in the floodplain.
The county can’t control Mother Nature or the amount of rain that comes down.
“We can fight it, but we will never win,” he said.
Doyle said soft spots on county roads—fueled by last year’s flood, spring runoff and extraordinarily high precipitation—are just now getting back to normal.
“Moisture ruins roads. That’s all there is to it,” he said. “Last summer was unusual, to say the least.”
In December, the city announced it would pursue a grant to help purchase two pieces of property within its floodplain along French Creek that will be razed and turned into green space.
Hartmann informed the council of grant opportunities through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program and the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program, both through FEMA. Through these, money could be obtained to pay 75 percent of the cost to acquire the property, with the city to paying the remaining 25 percent. The grants are under the federal government’s Disaster Relief Act.
Hartmann said the properties to be purchased are at 105 S. 8th St. and 105 S. 11th St., both of which were damaged by the flood and are well within the floodplain along French Creek.
Total project cost would be around $212,814, of which the city would pay around $53,000. Owners of the properties paid for their properties’ appraisals and have indicated a willingness to accept 75 percent of the appraised value, Hartmann said.
If the grant is received and the purchases completed, once the houses are removed and the ground reclaimed, it would be deed restricted land that would become city property and made a green space in perpetuity. Hartmann said the state approved the project and it awaits final approval from FEMA. It is hoped FEMA will give its blessing in September.
Coincidentally, at the same time the city was recovering from the flood, a project to study the French Creek and Laughing Water Creek floodplains was winding to an end after two years of study. The results is a new flood insurance rate map and regulatory flood plain that will take effect in October that will actually be smaller than they are now.
Hartmann said years of data was studied using stream gauges, etc., as well as more modern technology relating to hydrology used by FEMA to determine the smaller floodplain, which will mean some properties will no longer need flood insurance.
The irony that the floodplain was determined to be smaller only a few months after a catastrophic flood was not lost on Hartmann.
“What I always tell people is it’s the best engineering practices that determine the floodplain,” he said. “That doesn’t mean Mother Nature can’t outdo that.”
First responders were heavily involved in the flood, as they raced around town to evacuate people who found their homes filling with water. Debriefing meetings were held and a hard look at first responders’ preparedness for such an event were scrutinized.
A year later, Mike Carter, Custer County emergency management director, said training and equipment shortfalls have been addressed in the past year and emergency management is now more focused on how to better service people in a more timely matter when the water recedes. More specifically, Carter said, knowing and accessing funding streams previously unknown that could be available.
There wasn’t enough damage for a major disaster declaration, such as from the President, but Carter said a lot was learned about how to help with long-term recovery and how to leverage and better allocate donated funds.
“I think all of us learned some lessons on that,” he said.
Hartmann said he believes that flood made people more aware that such an event is possible.
The flood earlier this year, while not nearly as severe, almost assuredly had people harkening back a year ago to almost the day.
“As years go on and you don’t see it, you get a little more complacent,” Hart-mann said.

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