Flood resiliency in Orange County and Chapel Hill

COMMUNITY

By Caroline Daly
Student Journalist, UNC Media Hub
Hussman School of Media and Journalism

Orange County and Chapel Hill communities have recently experienced massive floods that have resulted in flash flood warnings and school cancellations.

On Jan. 9, there was a flood watch for both areas. Many public schools in Orange County and Chapel Hill were closed or delayed due to students being unable to get to and from school.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill moved to a Condition 1 status, reducing operations for employees and students.

Flooding is affecting loads of Chapel Hill and Orange County residents. It is something that most people don’t even think about until it happens to them, so oftentimes, residents are unprepared and overwhelmed.

The state of North Carolina is aware of these issues and more organizations are enacting policies for flood prevention.

One UNC senior and Chapel Hill resident, Aubri Bishop, dealt with this flooding firsthand when the house she is renting flooded this past month during the Jan. 9 flash flood.

Water was gushing through the windows, floorboards and electrical outlets, leaving her house overflowing with water to a point where it could not be stopped. Bishop was even getting painter’s tape to block off points of contact in the windows to stop the water from flowing in.

“The best way I could explain it is you have like seal commercials when they stab the tub and water just starts flowing out like that,” Bishop said.

Bishop and her roommates raced around their house using any sort of cloth to absorb all the water accumulating on the floor. They wrapped the cloth articles up and pushed them against the house’s doors to ensure the water wouldn’t spread into every room.

“We were using things like quilts, bedspreads, sheets, towels, every large article of cloth we had. So just the amount of laundry with it was insane,” Bishop said. “And after the water had gone away, the film of dirt all over down here was horrible.”

Two inches of water accumulated throughout the house; Bishop’s feet splashed in water as she walked around her home.

Bishop’s close friend Grace Gao, a UNC senior, came by Bishop’s house after the flood and saw towels everywhere soaked in water.

“I was thinking, how often do they have to dry the floor? It still felt like they were living in an ocean,” said Gao.

Bishop is not concerned about the flooding for her house since she is graduating in May.

“If this were my house, I would definitely be worried about the water coming out of the outlets. And the long-term consequences of just our bathroom getting flooded multiple times. This was I think, the third or fourth time it really flooded,” Bishop said. “It could be fixed. It would just cost a lot of money, but also, the floorboards are warping, and power outlets are dead. So, there are consequences that are also costing money.”

The lights still flicker in Bishop’s house when she turns them on, certain power outlets don’t work, and there is still a film of dirt on the baseboards.

Gao said, “Since it is always flooding, there is also so much mud in the room, and it just makes it more difficult to clean up everything.”

Because of flooding in residences like Bishop’s, the state of North Carolina knows this is a major issue that must be fixed for residents to live comfortably.

One North Carolina program aiming to reduce flooding is the Streamflow Rehabilitation Assistance Program or StRAP. StRAP is a grant program run by the division that awards funds and works with over 100 local grantees and local organizations to complete projects that help reduce flooding, restore streams and improve drainage infrastructure in North Carolina’s waterways.

Along with clearing both natural streams and rivers, as well as artificial structures like canals and dams to help reduce flood issues and the impacts of flooding.

Matt Safford, the Program Manager for the StRAP Club Rehabilitation Assistance Program with the North Carolina Division of Soil and Water Conservation, said, “It’s grown in awareness in North Carolina. It’s something that thankfully, has been a nonpartisan issue. It is something that everyone wants to be involved in, in helping their communities and their waterways reduce flooding impacts.”

One of the biggest factors with increased flooding is population increases.

“Since there’s more people in the states, there’s going to be more people affected by flooding,” said Safford. “Increased amounts of roads, parking lots, structures and impervious surfaces are causing water from storms instead of being absorbed by the soil to wash into waterways.”

StRAP was created to fund proactive preventative maintenance to help address issues while they’re smaller, mitigating the impact of future storms.

The organization has $38 million to allocate to the program, and their total requests for funds totals $311 million. Out of the $38 million, $60 thousand has been distributed to three projects in Orange County.

“I know the term unprecedented is thrown around a lot, but we really do have kind of an unprecedented amount of money that’s become available right now to put to use,” Safford said.

StRAP will continue doing stream debris removal projects and watershed structure repair projects to repair dams and other flood control structures. They also plan on funding other project types like stream bank stabilization by going in and repairing stream banks eroded by floods.

“Flooding is one of the issues that’s going to affect all of us,” Safford said.

The General Assembly also created the NC Collaboratory in 2016 to collect data on environmental issues in the state.

They have conducted research through the University systems in North Carolina to understand how to use infrastructure, either naturally or through building, to make these regions that are prone to flooding more strong and less susceptible to flooding conditions.

“It was becoming apparent to me that the effects of a flooding event are so cascading, it’s just one issue that creates another issue and so on,” said Rose Houck, a UNC junior specializing in flood resiliency research in North Carolina.

Much of the Collaboratory’s research has been surrounding the natural practices they can enact to remove debris that has fallen; debris removal increases the resilience of the flood and keeps it contained within the existing watersheds.

They also can open and close levees when there will be increased rainfall to help mitigate the effects of water spreading.

Houck said, “This is really a bipartisan concern. It’s not about climate change it is not politicized. It’s about protecting our communities from what we’re facing versus this problem.”

The Collaboratory has also looked at population growth and urbanization. This leads to more concrete and outdated stormwater systems in these areas already prone to flooding. Rather than having soil or bodies of water do their job by soaking up all the water.

These programs will continue working hard on this issue to better the state of North Carolina and keep streams in a healthy, natural condition for communities and landowners along waterways.

“This is really a collaborative project and luckily, we’ve been seeing a lot of great collaboration and it gives me a lot of hope for the future,” Houck said. “Anybody can be a part of creating a more flood-resilient state, on a community level, state level, or federal level, and you can be a part of the policy that has really important impacts on our community.”

Caroline Daly is a senior from Wilmington, NC, majoring in Media and Journalism, focused on Sports Broadcasting. She has experience in broadcast, writing, communications, graphics and social media. Caroline hopes to pursue a career in sports broadcasting.

UNC Media Hub is a collection of students in the Hussman School of Media and Journalism who create integrated multimedia packages covering stories from around North Carolina.”

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2 Comments on "Flood resiliency in Orange County and Chapel Hill"

  1. The world is changing quickly. The story of the student who has been subjected to repeated flooding was a good story to “make it real” for readers. However, the analysis of the systemic issues was weak. The issue of the effects of population and economic growth was not covered at the basics. If government has the right to determine where and what people can do with land, making those decisions also changes the risks of flooding for other people’s homes, businesses, and other uses of land. Do the country or the municiapalities (Chapel Hill) require an analysis of flood risk effects of land use decisions? If so, what is it?
    Second, climate change is real, no matter what political party a person is in, and a flood does not care what politcal party a home occupant is. It is certain that over the next 5-10 years, we will see, regardless of whether total precipitation moves up or down, and increase in highly concentrated rain events, with greater amounts of rain falling in short periods of time. These are the conditions that create flash floods, as does de-vegetating the land for economic and population growth. Planning needs to take into account that we are facing a perfect storm, so to speak, as the 2 likely most significant risk factors for flooding are increasing simultaneously. What is adequate today, will be inadequate in five years. Is that being considered, i.e. , are we using the best science available to maintain and improve our flood control systems, or are we being handicapped by partisan disagreement that is fact-free and scientifically impaired. These are the questions that need to be addressed if the citizens of Orange County want their storm management and flood prevention efforts to be successful.

  2. It’s worth noting that the Town of Chapel Hill has a Stormwater team that has a nuanced and high level view of these issues. A few years back the town proposed 5 settlement basins (similar to the one behind Eastgate and the new apartment building at Elliot and 15-501) to be built between MLKJ Drive and Eastgate to ameliorate flooding. These called for some very serious tree-cutting and earth-moving and many in the community became predictably agitated for largely NIMBYish reasons, many of them pretty well-founded (it is not bad for people to love their back yards, they put a lot of work into them). It was going to cost something like $18 million which the town didn’t have, nor did it have the headroom to issue the bonds to fund it.

    The engineering behind the proposed basins may not have been perfect, but it was probably directionally accurate. Significant money, work and concessions from community members will likely be necessary to mitigate flood risk going forward if we want to continue down a path of infill development. Which we need to to get more dense, reduce sprawl, and get more carbon efficient.

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