One year later: what's next with Delaware flooding?

| 29 Sep 2011 | 08:25

At this first anniversary of the April 2005 flood, valley residents have learned major flooding on the Delaware River is an all too common occurrence. Perhaps the most catastrophic local natural disaster still in memory by some was the Flood of 1955. In the Delaware Valley alone, 99 people perished. It was a so-called “100-year flood.” In January of 1996, the river again overflowed, bringing enormous chunks of ice with it. Devastation spanned through many parts of the valley as the river lifted houses right off their foundations. More recently, in September 2004, tremendous rainfall sparked a flood larger than the 1996 event. Pike County was declared a federal disaster area. Falling just short of the 1955 record, the flood of 2004 claimed over $6 million in damages. Only six months after the area began recovering from that disaster, the Delaware again inundated the valley last April, rising to 32 feet, which made it the third worst flood since 1900. Three floods, two approaching 100-year flood levels within months of each other raises questions. Why? Can we expect more serious flooding in the future? Mary A. Shafer, author of “Devastation on the Delaware” and Weather Coordinator for the Nockamixon Township EMA, said bad flooding will continue. “Not only can it, it will. It’s not a question of ‘if’, it’s a question of ‘when’.” What caused these catastrophes? Both in 1955 and 2004, hurricanes were responsible for dumping massive amounts of rain on the area, triggering the floods. Hurricanes Connie and Diane in 1955 proved to be a potent mix, even during one of the most severe droughts of the century. Snow melt and heavy rains played a central role in causing the floods last year and in 1996. But Shafer pointed out that the rainfall in 2004 from Ivan was only 63 percent of the rain that fell during the 1955 flood; however, it caused 84 percent of the flood crest. In other words, less water is doing more damage. According to Shafer, the only difference between now and 1955, “is the amount of development along the river; theoretically, we should have had a much smaller flood crest than we did.” Deforestation and development across the valley has led to a larger area of impermeable surfaces that prevent water from being absorbed. According to John Wright, Archeologist at the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, more paved grounds also contribute to an increase in velocity of the river since the water run-off picks up speed on the smooth surface, causing “sheet flow.” In the 2005 flood, the river was flowing at about twelve times the speed as it does normally. In contrast, Wright stated that we did not experience the full potential of the flood in 2004 due to the thick vegetation at that time of year. Shafer also attributed these floods to an increasing number of storms and hurricanes generated by global warming. According to Shafer, global warming, both man-made and natural, causes the ocean’s temperature to increase, generating larger storms more frequently. “We are going to see a lot more floods a lot more often and they are going to be a lot more intense.” That was disputed by Hydrologist, Richard Albert the staff scientist at the Delaware Riverkeeper. He sees no correlation between the alleged global warming and recent flooding. Albert stated, “Ascribing cause and effect to nature’s random events is fraught with danger.” Snow melt and heavy rains played a central role in the cause of last year’s flood. However, a lack of preparation in surrounding reservoirs also was a large factor, Wright claimed. The Cannonsville, Pepacton, and Neversink Reservoirs all drain into the Delaware River. Last April, two of the three reservoirs had no flood control policy in place. Pepacton, the only one that did, was closed three days before the flood. The 23 billion gallons of water that eventually spilled or was released from these reservoirs was partially blamed for the damage in many areas. Wright said that some of the water from Lake Wallenpaupack should have been released earlier, but wasn’t. The $100 million local price tag on the 2005 flood could have been minimized by adequate preparation and prevention. Wright emphasized the need for planning stating, “We should have plans, actions plans; What happens if … what happens if a hurricane hits? New Orleans — What happens if you already have your reservoirs full and we get an event like that? ” In comparison to the circumstances in 1955, Shafer contends, “We are in a tremendously worse situation than we were fifty years ago. There are more people living and working in the flood plains and there are fewer people who take flood hazards seriously. The only thing that is better is our communications system.” She said that she would be surprised if there was any loss of life comparable to that in 1955, but the property damage will be unimaginable. If another flood is indeed inevitable at a greater magnitude than those in the past, as Shafer affirms, a lot needs to change. “A flood plain is a flood plain”, she remarked, stressing that people need to realize they live in an area where they are highly susceptible to flooding. The bottom line is, as Wright stated, “We live in the flood plain; the river owns your house.”