MOUNT VERNON — Last August, the Federal Emergency Management Agency informed city officials that FEMA had redefined the flood plains around the city, in many cases expanding them and adding landowners and homeowners to flood plain areas.
FEMA used updated technology methods to reassess the local levees, then fed that information into a computer, which remodeled the flood plain areas. This determination was not based on any on-site inspection of local levees.
The current levee system is now more than 50 years old, having been put in place after the 1959 flood. This brings into question the condition of the system.
According to Councilman Charles Dice, who represents residents in the west end, maintenance on the levees, at least since the flood of 1959, has been mostly cosmetic.
“The city mows the dikes,” he said. “And every few years it seems like, the Corps of Engineers comes in and takes out trees and debris from the river side of the dikes. But that’s about all I see being done.”
“I think we have some maintenance responsibilities,” said Cameron Keaton, Mount Vernon city engineer.
Keaton said he knew the Corps had been involved in inspecting the levees in the past but he was unaware of any inspections lately.
“Since I’ve been here I don’t think they have been inspected, and I’ve been here a year and a half,” he said. “I was told in the past that there was an inspection every year. The Army Corps would call the city and it would be kind of a joint venture between them and the city. They would meet with us, and Dave Glass, Jim Henry and Larry Bechtol have all walked with the Army Corps of Engineers. They probably walked the banks and made a list of things that needed to be taken care of.
“But since I’ve been here, I don’t know that they have been inspected. It might be three or four years since they have been inspected. I don’t know if that’s because of budget cuts or scale backs or what, but we haven’t gotten any nasty letters from them saying we need to do something.”
That’s because the Army Corps of Engineers does not take responsibility for inspecting the local levees because the levees do not meet certain criteria. The most important criteria is that the levees do not have the height to prevent what is known as a 100-year flood event.
David Humphreys of the Huntington Office of the Army Corps of Engineers said the levees at Mount Vernon were not built by the Corps, and had to meet eligibility requirements to be inspected by the corps.
“There are a couple of categories of projects that the Corps of Engineers inspects; one is systems constructed by the federal government and turned over to a local sponsor for operation and maintenance,” he said. “Then we have a program that will inspect projects constructed by others and have been petitioned to be in a program where they are inspected by the Corps of Engineers; that happens to be the circumstance at Mount Vernon.
“The particular program that Mount Vernon would request to be eligible for, and was eligible for in the past due to a kind of grandfathering action, is what’s called the Rehabilitation and Inspection Program,” he continued. “The RIP acts as a kind of insurance policy for those communities that on their own have undertaken flood reduction projects.”
Humphreys said the inspections under RIP allowed the Corps of Engineers to assess damage done to levees or flood walls based on previous conditions. The damage then might be eligible for the corps to get money to let the corps restore the flood control system to its condition prior to the damage.
The local system of levees was originally eligible for inspections because the Corps of Engineers did a channel clearing project in the Kokosing River and Dry Creek after the flood of 1959. The Corps did construct the North Kokosing Branch Project as a means of flood control along the lower Kokosing River, but not the levees.
“It got into our inspection program via a channel project we constructed there about 1959,” said Humphreys. “But we’ve matured our inspection program quite a bit and learned a lot about risk at (Hurricane) Katrina.”
Because of these changes in the inspection process of the Corps, Knox County is no longer a part of the RIP program.
“At this point in time we are not actively inspecting the levee system [in Knox County],” said Humphreys. “I don’t believe it meets the current minimum criteria in its engineering to be a viable flood damage reduction project.”
So who is responsible for inspection and maintenance, and how often is it done?
Keaton said city and county officials get together every year to spray along the river side to help keep vegetation down along the river. The city also takes care of mowing the levees located inside the city.
County Engineer Jim Henry, who was also unaware that the Corps did not actively participate in levee inspections in Knox County, wants to reassure citizens that inspections and maintenance are taking place on a regular basis.
“We have traditionally gotten the dikes ready for inspection by the corps,” he said. “They would come out in the fall, typically, and I have noticed they haven’t been doing that for the last couple of years. They never made a formal announcement to us.
“But we do take the flood protection by the levees seriously. We take the maintenance of the levees seriously.”
Glass said he had gone on the inspections with the Corps for decades.
“Most of the dikes were there originally, before the 1959 flood,” he said. “The procedure is that [the Army Corps of Engineers] would call and schedule a couple months ahead of time and we would all meet at the north end of town and walk the entire length of the dikes. But I don’t recall it being done in the last couple of years; maybe three or four.”
Keaton said local officials will get together to determine how to handle levee inspections now that the Corps does not handle it locally.
“It’s always a good idea to have preventative maintenance,” he said. “A lot of times the guy on the mower, his job is to mow grass. Unless you give him directions, he’s not necessarily going to look for erosion or anything. So it’s a good idea to do with or without the Corps. I think it’s something the city and county should get together and discuss since we were both involved in that in the past, now that we have been made aware that nobody’s been looking at these.
“Another program we fall under now, the Phase Two Stormwater Program, requires us to inspect our stormwater discharges every year,” he continued. “That would entail someone being down in the river area around the banks and levees looking at pipes. So we could probably incorporate some inspection along with that. Anyone out doing that inspection can pick up on any notification of erosion or other areas that need attention. I get together with Jim [Henry] at least once a month, and this is something we will be discussing.”