Nearly four years after a fatal flood, City of Englewood closes in on mitigation plan

Leaders hope millions in infrastructure will be enough to avoid repeat of 2018 disaster

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Becky Deal is scared when it rains. For her, it's a reminder of a not-too-distant time when her Englewood home of more than 30 years began to fill with water. 

There were about 36 inches in the backyard and 18 inches in the garage. Inside the house, Deal measured 10 inches. Along with ruined carpet, furniture and drywall, she lost a lifetime of memories stored in photos and other keepsakes. 

“It was awful, it was awful," said Deal, who was living with her husband and 7-year-old grandson at the time. "Four years later, the impact is just devastating." 

The City of Englewood is still healing from a July 2018 flash-flood that caused chaos for residents, displaced households and led to the death of a 32-year-old woman.

Now, nearly four years on, city leaders are closing in on a plan to pour millions into infrastructure for flood mitigation to "prevent anything like that from happening again," said Deputy Director of Public Works Tim Hoos.

The plan, known as the South Englewood Flood Reduction Project, calls for $23 million to build new stormwater detention ponds and replace and repair several pipes near Santa Fe Drive and Quincy Avenue. Construction could begin as soon as this fall and will take about a year to complete. 

The area is considered to be one with the least amount of flood infrastructure in the city, Hoos said. It was there where residents suffered some of the most damage to their homes in 2018.

'I don't feel very safe' 

Deal was driving home with her grandson after his gymnastics lesson July 24, 2018 when the rain began to pour down. Curious, she stopped by Rotolo Park near her house off West Radcliff Drive to see how much water the park had collected. 

Deal couldn't believe it when she saw water begin to break the park's crest. Panicked, she drove home to find herself cutting through feet of water with her car.

Once inside, she joined her husband and grandson to stuff trash bags, towels and whatever else they could find into cracks beneath their floors to keep the water from rushing in. 

“You really don’t have a whole lot of time to think about what you’re supposed to do," Deal said. “It started rising quick." 

It took about three months to recover, Deal said, with her and her husband cleaning and repairing their home "from sunup to sundown." Deal estimates it cost them about $35,000 to $38,000 in damages. They didn't have flood insurance at the time. 

“There’s still stuff today that I’m finding that was from the flood. Little pieces of trash here and there," she said. 

The flood also led to the death of 32-year-old Rachael Marie Haber, an Aurora resident, who was cat-sitting in an Englewood home at 4650 S. Acoma St. Water in the home’s basement rapidly reached the ceiling, according to police, who were able to get Haber out of the home before she died of drowning, according to the Arapahoe County Coroner’s office.

Residents in hard-hit areas at the time said they felt the city was at fault following the flood, with many bringing their grievances before city council. 

Englewood's former city manager acknowledged missteps, citing a need for a new emergency-operations plan, a lack of an emergency manager and a storm-drain system built in the 1950s to 1970s that proved ill-equipped to handle the roughly two inches of rainfall that battered certain areas in the city for nearly an hour. 

Current stormwater flow is four-times greater than what existing pipes can handle, according to the city, which can cause a bottleneck when the system is not able to drain water fast enough and lead to localized flooding, such as what happened in 2018.

Deal said residents had brought concerns about the city's preparedness even before that flood. 

"They knew that there was a problem and they did nothing," she said. For her, it's made it more difficult to trust that the city's new plans will be enough if and when a future flood hits. "I don’t feel very safe with what they’re doing or have done."

Flood risks are increasing 

Hoos said the city’s new flood infrastructure will be enough to fully manage a 25-year-flood, meaning it has a one-in-four, or 4%, chance of occurring in a given year, a key marker of a flood's severity.

The flood in 2018 was estimated to be a 50-year-flood, meaning it has a 2% chance of occurring in a given year, according to Hoos. Still, he said he is confident the new infrastructure will be enough to protect homes from flooding even during storms more severe than a 25-year-flood, though streets may still flood in those instances. 

Based on current National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admiration (NOAA) data, a 25-year-flood for Englewood has a rainfall depth of 1.66 inches of rain in one hour.

“Based on the current data ... we feel what we are designing now is sufficient,” Hoos said, adding the project will be able to handle 96% of floods that may occur in the city. 

Hoos said costs and current infrastructure constraints kept the city from pursuing a plan that would mitigate rarer and more severe floods. Pipes large enough to hold water for such floods would not fit within current city roads, according to Hoos. 

The detention ponds — meant to collect the rainwater that drains from pipes and prevent it from flowing into homes — will be designed in a way that allows each to be enlarged in the future, Hoos said, should the city pursue more ambitious flood projects in years to come. 

More severe floods are becoming more frequent due to climate change, according to Kelly Mahoney, a researcher with NOAA. 

“I think it’s safe to say for the likelihood of those storms, the trends are all in the upward direction," Mahoney said. 

For example, the chance of a 100-year-storm happening in a given year has increased by about 10% over the past 50 years, Mahoney said. While some years may sees dips in a flood's probability, the overall trends point to flooding becoming a much more common reality in the years to come. 

For this reason, Mahoney said city leaders should prepare “for an increased risk going forward” as they look to new mitigation projects. 

NOAA's current estimates of flood probabilities such as for a 25, 50 or 100-year flood are in need of updating, Hoos said, with revisions that should come from the agency in the next two to five years. 

“If you are planning a project ... you should not assume that the values of a 25-year storm today, or five years ago, are going to be the same values going forward," Mahoney said.

Mayor hopes for 'peace of mind' 

Englewood Mayor Othoniel Sierra said the city's plan will be a "huge improvement to what we have" and that current council members had pledged a project that would bring “peace of mind to the residents." 

“We would want to have gotten started on this much earlier than we had," said Sierra, who was just a month into his term when the 2018 flood hit. "But it feels good that we’re finally at this point."

The wait for infrastructure improvements largely hinged on funding, said Hoos, with the city not in a financial position to meet its needs in 2018. 

Stormwater fees levied on properties were about $17 per year at the time, too low for the city to pursue grants or loans for a large project. But fees have increased each year since 2018 and are now about $228 per year, according to Hoos. 

This, coupled with the city’s hopes of securing a federal grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, will allow it to fund the flood project. Hoos said the FEMA grant could cover 75% of the project’s costs, with the rest being paid for by stormwater fees.

Another option, if the grant is not secured, is to fund the project through a state-issued loan that will be paid off using money from stormwater fees, Hoos said.

Any fund allocations, whether from a grant or state loan, will still need to be voted on and approved by city council. 

City leaders described the funds as a major investment, though such spending should happen more routinely said Joel Scholtes, assistant professor of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder and Colorado Mesa University. 

“Infrastructure is never a one-off thing," said Sholtes, whose work focuses on flood maintenance and planning. 

With NOAA poised to update its flood probability data in a matter of years, Sholtes said flood mitigation projects are “already behind the curve, even when it comes to new designs."  

Along with physical improvements, Sholtes said cities across the metro area should invest in outreach and education to residents who may live in flood-prone areas such as posting signage of at-risk areas and ensuring homeowners have access to flood insurance. 

“I think there’s a lot more that we can do to educate," he said.

City of Englewood, 2018 Englewood flood, flood mitigation, climate change

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