From 1904 to 2014: What’s pushing Grand Rapids to rethink downtown floodwalls

flooding duck
A duck swims by as recent flooding has caused the Grand River water level to come up to the windows at Anderson Eye Care inside the Riverfront Plaza Building in downtown Grand Rapids Monday, April 22, 2013. Previous water levels can be seen marked on the wall. (Cory Morse | MLive.co

 

By Matt Vande Bunte | mvandebu@mlive.com 
December 21, 2014 at 9:00 AM

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Working with consultants on a new downtown planning process that centers on an effort to remove dams and restore the Grand River’s rapids, the city is studying 16 sites where it could meet new federal flood protection standards.

Here’s a look at the events that shaped Grand Rapids’ current flood-planning efforts. Some of these weather events caused destruction in our community, and later served as catalysts for change.

  • March 1904:Warm weather and heavy rains melt a thick snowpack and cause the Grand River to rise 5 feet over its flood stage in downtown Grand Rapids, submerging the low-lying West Side and lapping at the edges of John Ball Park more than a half-mile away. The flood affects 14,000 residents and 2,500 houses, according to newspaper accounts, and 8,000 men are idled as 50 of the city’s factories shut down temporarily. The river has run higher only three times in the 110 years since then.
  • 1907: Affected by flooding again in 1905 and 1907, Grand Rapids begins building floodwalls on a dock line established along the riverbanks. By 1911, the first floodwalls built along the Grand River are on 12-foot concrete bases. More walls are built in 1927, 1934 and 1936.

  • March 1985:After more than 80 years without topping its 1904 crest, the Grand River exceeds 19.5 feet. It flows higher than 19 feet again the next year. Of the 12 highest river crests in Grand Rapids, seven have happened in the last 30 years.
  • 2003:Grand Rapids completes work on a 17-year, $13.5 million rebuilding of the city’s floodwalls and embankments, bringing them to one foot above the 100-year flood mark. New pumping stations and backflow-prevention machines also are installed in case the river fills up as it rushes through the city.
  • August 2005:Hurricane Katrina causes massive flooding in New Orleans as levees fail, killing hundreds of people. The Federal Emergency Management Association says Grand Rapids’ floodwalls must be 3 feet above the 100-year flood level, but city leaders aren’t thrilled about spending millions of dollars to do that. In limbo are about 6,000 homes and businesses near the river that could face higher property insurance rates if new FEMA flood maps come out showing them in a flood zone.
  • 2008:FEMA delays a planned release of new flood maps – the first new maps since 1982 – so it can review its rule-making process after then-U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers chides the agency for “bureaucratic closed-mindedness and inflexibility at its worst.” Ehlers argues that Grand Rapids does not have the type of flooding risks faced in coastal communities that were affected by Katrina.
  • April 2013:The Grand River surges to a record crest of 21.85 feet, below the floodwalls but close enough that the city risked an overflow had a few inches of forecasted rain not fallen outside the watershed instead. Emails from the flood show that Mayor George Heartwell delayed declaring a state of emergency in part because he thought it might concede to FEMA that the floodwalls are not high enough.
  • May 2013:The White House adds Grand Rapids Whitewater’s $27 million Grand River restoration plan to the Urban Waters Federal Partnership. The announcement comes four months after Gov. Rick Snyder touts the Whitewater plan in his annual State of the State address. State and federal agencies pledge support for the project to remove dams through downtown and restore the river’s rapids.
  • November 2013:President Obama appoints Mayor George Heartwell to his Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. The group of 26 state, local and tribal leaders studies how the federal government can help the country prepare for climate change. The National Weather Service expects more intense rain storms to occur more often in the future.
  • January 2014:The Downtown Development Authority hires a Philadelphia consultant to craft a new plan for downtown Grand Rapids and the land along the Grand River. The planning process gets branded as GR Forward.
  • May 2014: Grand Rapids voters by a 2-to-1 margin approve a 15-year income tax for “vital streets,” including green infrastructure aimed at soaking up rain water before it gets into the river system.
  • August 2014:The city issues a $4.7 million bond through the Kent County Drain Commissioner’s office. A chunk of the money is earmarked for a bigger, better berm around the Market Avenue SW wastewater treatment plant that the city scrambled to sand bag during the April 2013 flood.
  • November 2014:Grand Rapids approves spending $500,000 of the bond money tostudy how flood protection can be improved at 16 sites along the Grand River. Consultants on the project include out-of-state firms leading the Grand Rapids Whitewater and GR Forward initiatives.
  • December 2014:Having agreed with Grand Rapids and two dozen other U.S. cities on modified standards, FEMA plans to issue a draft report that won’t require floodwalls to be 3 feet above the 100-year flood level.
  • March 2015:In partnership with local leaders, FEMA is expected to rework its draft report into a final report that will detail what Grand Rapids has to do to earn certification for its floodwall system.
  • 2016-2017:FEMA is expected to finalize new flood maps that will show whether parts of Grand Rapids are in a flood zone and subject to higher property insurance premiums. “It’s just not an option that the flood insurance rates come out showing that,” said Jim Smalligan, an engineer working with the city.

 

 

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