Ironton#8217;s flood protection is in decent shape

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 3, 2008

It looks almost as impenetrable as the Great Wall of China. And after the 1937 flood impenetrable was exactly what everyone up and down the Ohio River begged for.

It’s that massive concrete floodwall and earthen levies that surround Ironton. It may block the scenic views from the river, but for 70 years it’s kept that river at bay.

But 70 years is a long time for something to keep working, whether or not it’s made of concrete. Years take their toll.

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Now comes the question: How much should the people who depend on the floodwall for protection care that it is getting close to 100 years old?

In other words, how good is the floodwall today to keep Ironton safe?

On Jan. 19, 1937, began the worst flood for Ironton in the 20th century. There had been others, like the ones in 1901 or 1913, but there was nothing like the inundation by the Beautiful Ohio in 1937 that stretched from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Ill.

Just in Ironton alone approximately 10,000 residents were forced from their homes or could not get to their businesses. Many were stranded in their cars or on top of downtown buildings.

Basically, there was no communication with the outside. Natural gas supplies were shut down and only about half of the city had electricity.

Overall, the flood left 1 million homeless, 385 dead with $500 million worth of property damage for the cities and towns along the river.

After the water ebbed and normalcy returned, President Franklin Roosevelt began a massive flood protection plan so that kind of devastation would not occur again.

But what about today?

Both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Mike Pemberton, Ironton’s flood superintendent, believe the floodwall system is basically safe right now.

“The project is in very good condition, ready to serve in the next flood event,” Dave Humphries, inspection of completed works program manager for the Corps, says. “It’s in decent shape.”

However, the grade the Corps gave the project on its most recent inspection in November 2007, might seem to belie Humphries’ enthusiasm.

While Ironton owns the floodwall and all that goes with it, it was the Corps that actually built the local project at a cost of $3.8 million.

That means while Ironton must maintain the project, the Corps still does an annual inspection. It also retains the right to give approval for any construction near the floodwall “so the integrity of the system is maintained,” Humphries said.

Each year Humphries comes to Ironton to spend several days walking the project, making sure no vegetation is growing where it shouldn’t on the levies and the checking out the alignment of the wall.

“We go to all the pump stations and trial-operate the pumps,” he said. “Look for roof leaks in the pump station. We give a relatively robust inspection.”

Going over an intricate checklist, Humphries then assigns one of three grades to each project that he checks out. It will be either Acceptable, Minimally Acceptable or Unacceptable.

Equating these three grades with classroom grades, Humphries explained that Acceptable is the same as an A; Minimally Acceptable would be comparable to a range of from B to D and Unacceptable would be a failing grade.

“With Minimally Acceptable I would characterize conditions as very good,” he said. “Our checklist is a rigid checklist. If you get one little check mark in a wrong column. Most of my projects, nearly all of my projects, are a Minimally Acceptable rating. Personally, I don’t like the three level grading scheme. I don’t find it very descriptive. Minimally Acceptable doesn’t mean it is not ready to serve.”

It is the immediate future that concerns Flood Superintendent Pemberton. He appreciates that age is taking its toll on the project, more precisely with some of the 9 pump stations that work to keep Ironton dry.

When there is flooding the sluice gates at the river’s edge and at Storms Creek are closed. That means the inner city rain water coming into storm drains must be pumped out.

“If a pump station would fail, it is a possibility you could have damage to property,” Pemberton said. “The pump station has to stay active as long as the river level is higher than normal.”

Right now, the motors and pumps are in basically good working condition, Pemberton said.

“They are still doing their jobs, but everything ages, everything deteriorates,” he said. “Right now, we have a lot of electrical problems (in the first pump station). We rely on it most of the time. I got a couple of quotes to upgrade the electrical switch gears. The two quotes are over $100,000.

“We will have to start preparing now,” Pemberton said. “We should be aware it is old equipment.”

Paying for maintenance, as well as the salaries for Pemberton and two full-time employees who keep five linear miles of grass cut, comes from a floodwall levy.

“That pretty much eats up what is generated by the levy,” Pemberton said. “There are no extra funds to do a revitalization of our pump stations. We are going to have to pursue grant money. I would like to see the levy increased where we would have extra money to upgrade these pump stations.”

And it’s those pump stations that give Pemberton concern more than the part of the flood protection that people can see. He would like to see first an upgrade of the electrical systems in the stations.

“Where we can rely on them,” he said.

Next, he would like to replace all the motors and pumps in those stations. He estimates the cost of simply the first phase at just under $1 million.

“The floodwall, it is in pretty good shape,” he said. “We haven’t had any problems as far as erosion. The only thing that concerns me is just an unusual rain event.”

If rain brought in 4 to 5 inches of water in a 24-hour period, there could be property damage because of the pump stations, Pemberton said.

“The earthworks and concrete, I don’t have a worry at all, but the pump stations worry me.”