Diane DeMeerleer used to love living in The Lakes neighborhood of Kent, along the Green River close to a popular walking and biking trail that stretches for miles through the city.
But that love has faded, ever since a heavy rainstorm in 2009 damaged an embankment next to the Howard Hanson Dam and raised the threat of flooding. Kent city officials placed giant sandbags atop the Green River Trail, and they will remain there until the dam is fully operational after repairs, probably by the end of 2012. Sandbags also surround the 26-unit condominium complex where DeMeerleer lives.
“This was a beautiful place to live when not all of that was going on,” said DeMeerleer, a six-year resident of The Lakes and current president of The Lakes Neighborhood Council. “I loved it until that.”
Now Kent city officials are on an estimated $200 million mission to upgrade and certify the 12 miles of Green River levees in city limits. It’s an effort aimed at protecting the city from flooding, keeping flood insurance rates down and allowing for more development and redevelopment in the Kent Valley, one of the largest industrial and warehouse regions on the West Coast.
The levee-certification process looms even more important this year, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency updates the Green River Valley flood maps that determine flood-insurance requirements and building regulations. The National Flood Insurance Program, to which the city belongs, is issued by insurance companies through FEMA.
FEMA will present its new, preliminary flood maps to residents and business owners at an open house from 6-8 p.m. Feb. 7 at the Kent Senior Activity Center, 600 E. Smith St. The updated maps are preliminary until an appeals period is completed, and the maps are adopted formally. However, there is no exact timeline for when that will happen, FEMA spokesman Mike Howard said.
Meanwhile, the City Council has approved several contracts over the last few months to hire consultants to study, test and certify that the levees are up to federal code.
That means the levees have to be up to standard to protect the Kent Valley from the 1 percent annual chance flood event – also known as the 100-year flood – that FEMA uses to determine special flood-hazard areas. The “flood event” is not actually a flood that happens once every 100 years but rather a flood that has a 1 percent chance of occurring ever year, according to FEMA.
City officials expect to learn plenty from the engineering companies they’ve hired to certify the levees.
“It will provide improved flood protection by letting us know about any weaknesses,” said Mike Mactutis, city environmental engineering manager. “Secondly, without this benefit people would have to purchase flood insurance because the levees are assumed to fail. It also is important to the city’s future development because it’s difficult to build in a special flood-hazard area and a lot of the valley is under that.”
City Council President Jamie Perry approves of the city’s plan to upgrade the levee system in Kent. The projects are expected to take at least several years.
“There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle from the Hanson Dam issue to levee certification and the flood maps and economic development,” Perry said. “There are a lot of pieces to put together and to shore up so the valley is not at risk of flooding. We will be working on this a long time. There is no quick fix.”
The Council recently approved levee upgrading and certification as its top legislative capital budget priority in 2011.
“I’ve heard the cost to repair and maintain the levees is about a $200 million job,” Perry said. “The city does not have the funding to do that all by ourselves.”
The cities of Kent, Renton, Tukwila, Auburn, along with King County, have asked the state for a 10-year, $150 million package to help fund levee projects. The cities took up an invitation from Gov. Chris Gregoire to apply for $30 million in capital funding in the 2011-13 state budget but have not yet learned whether any money will go toward levees. Kent received $10 million in 2009 from the state Department of Ecology to help fund repairs to the Horseshoe Bend levee on the south end of the city.
Among the levee-consulting contracts approved by the Council is a $260,490 contract passed Jan. 18 with Tetra Tech of Seattle, to analyze and certify the Boeing levee along the east bank of the river between South 200th Street and South 212th Street. City officials put aside funds in the 2011 budget from the storm water drainage utility fee to pay for the consultants.
City revenue from the storm-water fund comes from residential customers who pay a flat rate of $10.06 per month and from commercial storm drainage fees that vary based on property size, percentage of impervious surface and the basin in which the property is located.
Once Tetra Tech completes its levee analysis, the city will submit the engineering data and documentation about the levee to the FEMA to review the information.
FEMA officials will review the data and determine whether the levee meets federal standards to protect the area. If so, the agency will accredit the levee and revise flood maps to show the land as a moderate flood risk rather than a high-risk special flood hazard area.
Kent filed three levee certification reports with FEMA in 2010 and plans to file four more in 2011. So far, the agency has yet to accredit any of the levees as the reviews continue and can take up to a year or longer.
“FEMA looks at the studies and tells us if there are any shortfalls in the reports or studies,” Mactutis said. “Ideally, they will be approved (later this year) and we will get accreditation so that when they do the flood insurance maps the levees will be shown as providing flood protection.”
Despite the success of the levees in recent years to control flooding in Kent, FEMA does not recognize the levees because there is no paperwork to back up the systems built by farmers many years ago, said Tim LaPorte, city public works director.
“Tukwila had paperwork, so a major portion of the levee system that protects Southcenter was certified,” LaPorte said. “But if our levees didn’t exist, we’d be under water now. They have done well for the last 40 or 50 years. But even though we’ve had no failure since the early 1960s that’s not good enough because we could not prove how they were built.”
The Army Corps used to certify levees, LaPorte said. But the federal government removed the corps from the certification business because it didn’t want the government to compete with private companies that certify levees.
After Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005 and water overtopped levees in New Orleans, FEMA has required communities vulnerable to flooding throughout the nation to certify that their levees meet federal codes.
LaPorte said the Green River levee system is different from the New Orleans levee system. New Orleans’ system sits below sea level and next to the Gulf of Mexico, whereas the Green River meets the Duwamish River and drains into the Puget Sound. But FEMA decided to have every community meet certain standards of protection from flooding. Those not meeting standards would be mapped as flood-hazard zones and insurance rates would go up for new customers or others who let policies expire.
“From an economical and practical standpoint it makes sense to certify the levees,” LaPorte said. “We want to know the levees are in good shape. Once they get certified, the levees will hold and keep the community safe during a 100-year flood event and gives people the choice of whether they want to buy insurance. If the levees are not certified, they have to buy flood insurance.”
As for DeMeerleer, she prefers to stay in this area. Besides, the combination of the recession and flood threat makes it tough for anyone in The Lakes neighborhood to sell. She hopes the levee repairs and certification make a difference.
“We’re stuck until the dam and levees are settled,” she said. “If we sell now, we sell at a loss because of the down market and the flood issue.”
DeMeerleer remains thankful that no flooding has hit her neighborhood since damage to the dam two years ago. But she keeps a close eye on each storm.
“I feel very watchful,” she said. “The only reason we’re OK is because of the time we’ve had between storms. They’ve had time to drain (the Hanson Dam reservoir) before the next one comes.”