A car goes through the flooded area at Boone and West Market Street on Wednesday (Lee Talbery/Johnson City Press)
When the call went out to Public Works Department Director Phil Pindzola on Thursday in an effort to learn about the city’s reaction to recent flood damage, he picked up: “Public Works Department, Phil Pindzola speaking.”
The fact that he, and not other employees who normally screen and direct calls, answered the phone after a few rings set off a mild alarm that something was amiss. Pindzola has always been accessible, but policy, and the city’s preference, is that he and other city officials be informed of inquiries beforehand.
“I’m taking calls out here, because the first floor (Municipal & Public Safety Building) was flooded, and our office got the worst of it,” he said. “It came in and soaked our carpets.”
That reaction speaks volumes.
Not only does it confirm Johnson City’s immediate need for flood remedies; it shows that no one is necessarily immune and the problems are not confined to the very visible Brush Creek at Founder’s Park or the in-house King Creek project near what most know will be yet another flood remediation project at the downtown U-Haul site
“People shouldn’t be confused and think that the system (pipes/drains) is not clean — it is,” he said during a visit to the Johnson City Press on Thursday afternoon. “It’s the result of these rain events. It’s happening all the time, that’s the problem. People are getting tired and getting anxious, but it’s because of Mother Nature. We are elevating our requirements. We are doing something about it.”
One thing public works employees noticed Wednesday was the water flowing down Market Street. There was a significant elevation difference in water in that street and the water flowing in the McClure Street detention basin near the U-Haul site.
“That means we plan to accelerate our work on construction of the basin off Boone Street (across the street from the Press). Water coming down King and Market streets will dump into that basin and tie into the system. That will give us a better chance at minimizing flooding. I still think we’re on the right track. It’s about how fast we can connect the system.”
Pindzola said Johnson City residents are not facing a jump in their stormwater fees anytime soon.
Rain over the past 30 days has caused flooding at the intersection of Main and Broadway, and the city is getting ready to act on that. The City Commission is nearing acceptance of an $800,000 contract with Summers-Taylor to install a larger culvert at that intersection.
“You’ll start to see a shift in priorities and the allocation of dollars,” he said. “These events are occurring over and over. It doesn’t mean there’s a bigger problem out there. You’re seeing it because Mother Nature’s throwing it out there more than normal.”
He said he is well aware there is flooding in parts of the city other than downtown. Wednesday’s downpour was localized, meaning areas near or east of East Tennessee State University were not hit bad and that the storms have been “localized.”
“That was a big part of what we talked about during the U-Haul trial,” he said. “We’ve gotten to the smaller drainage systems and made repairs to curbs and the installation of pipe. But the projects are starting to get larger and more expensive. What these rain events show is there is a problem throughout Johnson City, not just downtown.”
When the problem seems to encompass a wider and wider area, you would think state and federal agencies would jump in and help. And on occasion they do, supplying grants and advice. The pool of applicants is deep, but the money available continues to shrink.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s mission statement says first and foremost that it exists to enhance Tennesseeans’ quality of life by being environmental stewards. Its first of four bullet points states: “Protecting and improving the quality of Tennessee’s air, land, and water through a responsible regulatory system.”
They key word here is “regulatory.”
“We’re under orders,” he said. “We can’t allow anybody to build in a flood plain if their floor elevation is less than 1 foot above the 100-year flood, or storm elevation. We upgraded after the 2003 floods. We implemented the stormwater fee and developed new specifications.”
Prior to 1980, developers and builders could build without restrictions. But that year federal and state laws required all subdivisions to be built to 10-year storm event specs, because so much harm was being done to structures built at lower elevations.
“When that happens — when you have a 50-year event — everybody below gets impacted,” Pindzola said. “So, in about 2007 we went to 100-year storm. We’re one of only three communities in the state to do that, and it’s not something we were told we had to do. We chose to do it.”
The city used to have pipes and drainage systems that could handle 10-year events, but that didn’t help much during 25-year events and water began flowing heavily into city streets and homes.
“Certain structures would be hit; others wouldn’t,” he said. “So what we’ve been doing is trying to address the issue. We finally decided that any new construction must have 25-year pipes. We also required that anyone developing a subdivision had to show us where the water flows on the property during a 100-year event. They also must build a detention basin. Then, if someone comes in and builds a home nearby, they’ll know where that flow will run.”
Pindzola said Wednesday’s storm caused more problems in and near King Creek than it did Brush Creek. The large amounts of water made things worse than normal, mainly because the surrounding ground had taken about all the moisture it could handle, leaving nowhere for runoff to go but up and out.