Archived Story

Has city let its guard down?

Published 10:17am Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Five hundred years sure passes quickly on the Blackwater River.

That thought came to me a few Saturday nights ago when forecasters, after a week of downplaying the possibility of major flooding in downtown Franklin, suddenly predicted a Blackwater crest of more than 20 feet, which would have put downtown under water for the third time in 12 years.

Even as the winds of Hurricane Irene continued to howl outside, my neighbor was moving computers out of his downtown office and arranging for rental trucks for a wholesale evacuation the next morning. Such is the life of a downtown business owner in Franklin — on edge every time heavy rains come and the river begins rising.

By the grace of God, the predicted flooding didn’t happen. By the next afternoon, the projected crest had been lowered significantly, and my friend turned in the rental trucks, unused.

The very fact that our community came so close to another major flood is disturbing. The experts told us after the devastating post-Hurricane Floyd flooding of 1999 that it was a “500-year event.” Yet in 2006, the lower end of Main Street was under water again.

Just this week, after a few inches of rain in the area late last week, the Blackwater unexpectedly rose again, closing Joyner’s Bridge, Burdette, Appleton, Governor Darden and Unity roads and Thomas Woods Trail. More rain is in the forecast for Friday and Saturday. Forecasters say the river will have fallen by then. Let’s hope.

The lesson of the last decade is that the “500-year” declaration of 1999 can’t be trusted. Another major flood in downtown Franklin is less a question of if than when.

The specter of another flood raises serious questions about a decision Franklin officials made last spring, with surprisingly little public discussion or fanfare.

After a decade of begging the Army Corps of Engineers and Congress for help in first figuring out the cause of frequent flooding and then mitigating the problem, the city curiously bailed out of the Corps’ Chowan River Basin project in March.

Citing concerns about the cost of further partnering with the Corps, the city opted to go it alone on flood prevention and seek state and federal grant money to put drop gates on culverts in strategic locations.

This columnist is no expert on the science of flooding, but people I respect tell me that the drop gates, in the event of major upstream flooding, would be as useful as a Band-Aid on a ruptured artery.

In a letter informing the Corps of the city’s decision, Franklin Director of Emergency Services Vince Holt wrote “on behalf of the Mayor, members of City Council, and the citizens of the City of Franklin.”

Yet, I can’t remember a single in-depth council discussion in advance of the decision, much less a public forum or hearing in which citizens were given the opportunity for input.

I understand the city’s concerns about the cost of the Corps project. Just the completion of the study phase could have cost Franklin hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on whether other localities in the Chowan River Basin had participated.

I also know that you can’t put a price tag on some things in life. A third major flood downtown would overwhelm an already-fragile local economy and do irreparable harm to our city. The implications extend far beyond the downtown commercial district.

“You Can’t Drown a Great Town” is good bumper-sticker fodder. Franklin is as resilient as they come. The human spirit, however, has its limits. At some point, those who have continued to invest in downtown will say enough is enough, especially if they conclude that city leaders aren’t doing their part to prevent future flooding.

By bailing out of the Chowan River Basin project, Franklin is playing with a force more powerful than fire. Next time the Blackwater rises, someone in city government should pick up the phone, call the Corps and say, “On second thought …”

STEVE STEWART is publisher of The Tidewater News. His email address is

  • Makalani

    “Whatever happened to dredging the river? …the mill…. dredged the river every so often.”

    That was pre-EPA days before environmental impact reports detailed the negative effects of such actions.

    There are probably 1000s of tons of toxic sludge/sediment south of IP and the sewage plant from years of dumping toxic wastes that are now prohibited by the EPA. Disturbing that toxic muck would create an environmental disaster all the way downstream to Albemarle Sound.

    You agree Jeff/Riverkeeper?

    Suggest Removal

    • employee2

      I don’t agree with your assessment. The mill’s releases were significantly south of the Franklin area and were stringently monitored. As far as the waste water plant spewing toxicity into the sludge…if it were a “heavy” pollutant to go to the bottom, it would have been removed at the waste water plant. Do I think the river botttom is “pristine”, hardly.

      Suggest Removal

  • Makalani

    “… completion of the study phase could have cost Franklin hundreds of thousands of dollars, …”

    I agree 10,000% with the City Fathers’ decision not to spend local tax dollars on such a boondoggle/study. The Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of all inland waterways in the US — let it pay for the study out of its budget.

    An expensive study will reveal what everyone already knows — there has been massive development upstream in the Blackwater’s watershed. It stretches nearly to Petersburg — encompassing parts of Suffolk — Southampton — Surry — Sussex — Isle of Wight and Prince George’s Counties.

    The proposed new Rt. 460 will pave over many 100s of open space acres in the Blackwater watershed? Maybe the engineers of that project will divert that runoff uphill towards Petersburg.

    Mother Nature is merely reacting downstream/in Franklin — increasing flooding — to changes wrought by man upstream — increasing runoff by paving over 1000s of acres of Her natural sponge — open space!

    “… if you live on the water, someday you will live in the water…” I second that motion — especially when your neighbors upstream are sending down ever-increasing amounts.

    Suggest Removal

  • RWH

    The old adage “if you live on the water, someday you will live in the water” is a fact, especially around these parts.

    Suggest Removal

  • employee2

    Whatever happened to dredging the river? If the water can move quicker out of the river basin you decrease the amount of the rise. My dad recalls that when the mill was using the river for wood transport they dredged the river every so often.

    Suggest Removal

  • Jeff Turner

    That’s a hard one to call. Certainly the 500 year thing is ludicrous. There will of course be more frequent instances of water invading the city of Franklin in the future because of several reasons I’m going into again. Certainly the flapper gates could help some, but without other measures taken in conjunction with (that I’m not going into again either)the flapper system, it alone will not save the city. In my opinion leaving the Chowan Study was a mistake, though it WAS painfully slow at getting anything accomplished for sure. I mean here we are 12 years later and nothing tangible has been done to safeguard the city. What really gets me is that the basic first step measures that were to be put into place like the extra river gauge in Franklin to help predict the river levels during hurricanes etc was built but is not being used by NOAA’s Southeast River Forecast Center (SERFC). When SERFC is doing the modeling or predicting how high the water will get in Franklin they are not using this new gauge that is attached to the new Rt 58 bridge. It is one reason SERFC was 6 foot off on their high water prediction this time. Of course it was better to error on the side they did, but still it caused a lot of people a lot of work and headache because there prediction was so waay off. Don’t get me wrong, predicting river crest is not an easy thing to do. I don’t like to guess on it either. There are just too many variables. It just looks like somebody either USGS or NOAA, somebody, has dropped the ball at getting this new possibly helpful tool into the business of giving the people of Franklin a better early warning system for high water. So maybe Franklin should take the initiative and see what has to been done to correct this deficiency. It will not stop water from coming into the city but it will certainly give folks a leg up to know if they will have to move merchandise to higher ground.

    Suggest Removal

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