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Warning came too late to spare flood damage
MIKE SHAW | The Roanoke Times
The New River flooded about two dozen cars parked in Radford University's Dedmon Center.
Sunday, February 10, 2013
“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
Many times during my professional career I have been reminded of that oft-quoted line from the 1967 film “Cool Hand Luke.” To me it symbolizes a breakdown between people who are critical and analytical thinkers, and those who spontaneously act or react based on insufficient information or on predisposed and often biased viewpoints. The latter is often a result of having insufficient facts or knowledge or an inability or unwillingness to learn from experience. And that brings me to the following:
Heavy rains hit Radford hard the week before last. I was astonished that more than 100 automobiles were submerged in the lower parking lot adjacent to the New River. What I found most appalling was not the flood itself (we geologists know that they happen from time to time), but the inadequate communication Wednesday evening as it became obvious that the river’s floodplain would soon be under water.
Radford University’s Lot Z is on the flood plain, as is the city’s Bissett Park. These are generally good uses of a flood plain, as there are generally no buildings or other structures that would sustain unmanageable damage. In the case of the parking lot, all that would be needed is a power washing of mud from its surface after the flood. However, I counted 93 damaged vehicles still in the lot on Sunday, awaiting insurance adjusters and tow trucks. I would estimate that repairs and refurbishing vehicles would run thousands of dollars per vehicle, amounting to about a quarter of a million dollars. Of course, many of the vehicles will be totaled as the blue-book values would be too low to be considered for repair. Those students will then be without a car.
Now, categorically and beyond any doubt, this dilemma could easily have been avoided. This is not the first time the lot has been flooded and vehicles were lost. During my tenure at the university from 1985 to 2006, I saw this lot under water at least three times, meaning on the average this occurs about every 10 years or less. Yet the signs, carefully placed along the entire lot read: “Caution: This parking lot is within the 100-year flood plain and is subject to flooding during heavy rain. Park with Caution.”
There should be no mention of a 100-year flood plain. Stating such a large recurrence interval gives a false sense of security. Claytor Lake, a few miles upstream, is an artificial impoundment. Discharge leaving the lake at the dam is managed and controlled by Appalachian Power and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The dam and lake were constructed in the 1930s for multiple uses, including electrical power generation, flood control and recreation. Owing to these structures and adjustment of discharge, a 100-year recurrence interval downstream is no longer applicable.
The signs should read something like: “Caution: This parking lot is subject to severe flooding, occurring frequently as a result of heavy rain. Park with caution and be alert to weather forecasts.” Such a disclaimer would not only get the university off the hook, but anyone parking a vehicle in the lot would know that any forthcoming large storm should be a warning to move the vehicles. Sure, this may turn out to be an unneeded inconvenience from time to time, but when a big one hits, the effort would avoid much hassle, grief and a large economic loss.
The bottom line is that someone is at fault and responsible for the loss of vehicles during the recent storm. The flood is an expected “act of nature.” However, given modern weather satellites and modern weather forecasting, there is ample lead-time to simply move vehicles from Lot Z only a few hundred feet to higher ground.
The dynamics of the New River are well known, based on decades of hydrological and meteorological data. Prediction of flood levels is neither rocket science nor best guesses. Computer models will show precisely what stage the river water will attain based on the precipitation occurring within the contributing drainage basin upstream.
The personnel at Appalachian and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who manage and control the Claytor Lake Dam, have this information and the technology to use it. They know exactly when to open the gates and to what degree, so that a flood pulse can be spread out over time, flooding only the lowest areas downstream (Lot Z and Bissett Park for example). They have done this many times. In conjunction with this procedure, they alert Radford, Radford University and others downstream of the impending flood surge, well in advance. That is the way it is supposed to work so that steps can be taken with enough lead-time to avoid much of the potential damage and threat to human welfare.
Based on several reports in the news media, Radford University made physical attempts to find students and tell them to remove their automobiles from Lot Z. However, the university-wide emergency alert system was apparently not used until waters were already entering the lot. The alert system was implemented in response to the terrorism events of 9-11 and to violence such as the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech. An impending large flood would be an ideal reason to use the system. It is far better to err on the side of a worst case (such as the magnitude of the flood) and get the cars moved as soon as possible than to wait it out, see what happens, and then respond fully at the last minute.
At this juncture I do not know all of the facts, including who made or did not make appropriate decisions, what alerts and warnings really went out and when, and perhaps other factors. Therefore, I cannot pass judgment as to who is at fault. What I can state is that the storm is not to blame for damage to the vehicles.
As a practicing hydrogeologist with more than 35 years of experience in the field, I know that there would have been sufficient data to make critical decisions and get most of those vehicles moved to higher ground well ahead of time. A lack of communication was the culprit. It logically follows that individuals making the calls about when and how to respond, whoever they may be, are at fault.
A thorough investigation is imperative to identify where the mistakes were made and who made them. Those who were negligent or who made poor decisions must be identified and held responsible. And I would include here any administrators who ultimately called the shots, whether at the dam, at the university or within the emergency response structure. This much is owed to the more than 100 students who have suffered the consequences, not to mention the insurance companies that are being asked to foot the bill. To simply tell students to contact their insurance companies (as reported in the media) is a cold-hearted and insensitive response, especially to an event that could have been avoided, perhaps by the very same people who are telling the students to do so.
As one who has witnessed this event in Lot Z several times before, as a scientist and as a critical thinker, I cannot sit idly by. I have to speak out. Failure to communicate is not an option. Accountability is necessary, and the students and insurance companies should demand it. And equally as important, perhaps the human errors will be avoided in the future.
One more thing: All those who are in position to make decisions regarding response to river flooding would be well advised to take a course in physical or environmental geology to get a better understanding of river dynamics and flooding.
Once more, this is not rocket science. It will be interesting to see if the same mistakes are made again when the New River floods to this level during the next 10 years or so. Some people may never learn, especially if they get away with it this time. There. I have said my piece.
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