After the deluge

Jul. 06, 2013 @ 01:04 PM

Drought and water shortages of recent summers seem a dim, soggy memory in Chapel Hill and Carrboro these days.

Our towns took a beating from Mother Nature last week.  One week ago, more than five inches of rain swamped the area, flooding many areas. In a sharp reminder of the power of water, it rose so rapidly in some places that it was two or three feet deep in the blink of an eye, moving with such force that cars were swept from parking lots.

A combination of unusually heavy, concentrated rainfall, ground already soggy from earlier rain and debris in overwhelmed storm-drainage systems overwashed low-lying streets and areas. Worst-hit areas were West Franklin Street downtown, the South Estes Drive area including University Mall and Camelot Village, Eastgate Shopping Center, Booker Creek Apartments and the Rocky Brook Mobile Home Park in southern Carrboro.

By all accounts, the area’s emergency services sprang quickly and effectively into action. Police blocked off streets, firefighters helped startled residents evacuate suddenly inundated apartments, and the Red Cross staffed an emergency shelter at Smith Middle School for folks who had to flee their homes.

Victims were stoic and even good-natured about the disruption and damage. A television newscast noted that the mostly graduate-student residents of one flooded complex joked that their waterlogged furniture came from Craiglist and wasn’t worth very much, anyway.

But the impact went beyond the immediate disarray and displacement. More than 120 apartments and mobile homes were at least temporarily condemned, meaning residents couldn’t move back in immediately – if ever. 

The town Tuesday declared a state of emergency, underscoring the sweep of damage and paving the way for more funds to be available for clean-up and recovery.

And the town expects to seek and provide funding to look for permanent antidotes to flooding that is all too frequent in some areas. While last week’s rainfall was unusually intense, creating problems that might be all but impossible to prevent, it only served to underscore the constant vulnerability of some areas.

Whether the result of inadequate storm drainage systems, past laxness in limiting building in flood-prone areas, poor land-use planning that allowed too much paved, impervious surface that limited the natural ability to absorb rainfall – or a combination of factors – the town faces a reality that must be addressed.

As often happens after floods highlight these problems, there will be tension.  The temptation to adopt short-term fixes that may dodge hard decisions is always present.

But perhaps the severity of this past week’s flooding will concentrate officials and citizens alike on the need to find long-term solutions.