Findlay's flood warning system touted

Findlay City Engineer Brian Hurt stands near a gauge over Eagle Creek. (Photo Findlay Courier)
Findlay City Engineer Brian Hurt stands near a gauge over Eagle Creek. (Photo Findlay Courier)
From our media partner The Findlay Courier

By Joy Brown, Staff Writer

Findlay officials' accurate projection of the Blanchard River flood crest on March 9 was a demonstration of what can be done with better data.

And when floods occur in the future, both government officials and citizens will be able to predict the impact of flooding, using a $265,000 flood warning and mapping system.

The new system is expected to be unveiled this month by the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Weather Service.

In the works for two years, it will debut on a yet-to-be-announced Weather Service Web site that will show rainfall and water level information from five stream gauges in Hancock County, along with "inundation maps" reflecting where the river water will probably go during 11 flood stages up to 18.46 feet (height of the August 2007 flood).

That information, along with National Weather Service forecast data, will allow more accurate flood predictions and warnings.

Engineers used elevation calculations, digital topographic data, National Flood Insurance Program maps, Army Corps of Engineers hydrologic information, and historical observations and measurements from the city to create the "inundation maps."

Anyone with Internet access will be able to view the continuously updated gauge information, maps and Weather Service predictions.

The system, however, will not be comprehensive because the maps will only show where the Blanchard River floods. They will not show where flooding occurs upstream along Eagle and Lye creeks, which flow into the river.

Because of that, City Engineer Brian Hurt said he does not want to leave room for Web site misinterpretation. He is working with the Weather Service on issuing a site disclaimer.

Another Geological Survey study, including "inundation maps" showing creek flooding, is "an option we can look at in the future," said Hurt, albeit one that would cost thousands more.

Otherwise, Hurt said, the Web site will be "a great tool to get the idea across of what's happening out there," so officials and residents can better prepare.

"The increased availability of stream flow data, the enhanced flood-prediction capability, and public access to the data will improve the ability of city officials to assess flood conditions, take appropriate steps to protect life and property, and reduce flood damages," the Geological Survey stated in a report that explains the flood warning system.

The system will also help the Weather Service improve its river crest predictions, which have traditionally been very conservative.

Findlay a prototype

"There aren't a lot of sites in the country that have this available," said Scott Jackson, section chief for the Geological Survey's Ohio Water Science Center in Columbus. "Findlay will be more or less a prototype."

"Overall, it's really exciting," said Hurt, who successfully used the information to predict a March 9 river crest that was closer to target than the Weather Service projection.

Hurt said he had been given the inundation maps for final review and input two weeks prior to the latest flood.

He also reviewed maps the city created showing actual floods, kept a close eye on rainfall amounts at the five gauges the city operates, and used the Geological Survey map showing the extent of flooding when the river is five feet above flood stage to educate co-workers and warn people about how the city could be affected.

Jackson said city workers essentially created "a war room," equipped with the latest tools, to prepare for the March flood.

The inundation maps provide a logistical bonus. Matt Whitehead, who co-authored the Geological Survey's report with Chad Ostheimer, said officials and the public will be able to see which portions of the city are likely to be submerged when a flood is predicted, determine whether to evacuate, and select the best routes to travel.

Residents will be encouraged to print the maps and keep them should Internet service be disrupted before or during a flood.

Ironically, as more floods occur, the more information will be collected to help better prepare the community.

The warning system "was something that was talked about many years ago," said Tony Iriti, president of the Northwest Ohio Flood Mitigation Partnership, who was mayor when Findlay Council agreed in early 2007 to partner with the Geological Survey on the warning system.

"I think previous councils thought it was just way too much money to spend. But then we had the December 2006 and the January 2007 floods. The USGS found more money to put toward it to make it more reasonable, and the council went along with it."

The Geological Survey paid for half of the study, which included research and mapping; and upgrading, buying and installing gauges.

On the river, one gauge was updated, another re-established, a third installed. Two new gauges were placed on Eagle and Lye creeks.

This year Findlay will pay $44,600 and the Geological Survey $14,900 to maintain the gauges.

"The first flood where we got really good (gauge) data was February 2008," said Hurt. "No doubt, those gauges have been key in the last two major floods. We are getting our money's worth" for the gauges and the system as a whole, he said.

The potential damage savings from such a warning system could add up, too.

"With enough advance warning, 12 hours, 20 hours, it'll make a big difference," said Jackson. "It's a slow rising stream. When you get up to, say, 30 percent reduction in flood damages... that's a lot of money."

Citing 2008 statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the report said Findlay damage estimates for the August 2007 flood, from which many have still not recovered, totaled more than $100 million.

Iriti said the warning system is separate from the Army Corps' flood reduction project that will create ways to ease flood damage throughout the whole watershed, including downstream in Ottawa.

Ottawa interested

Ottawa, which has also seen its share of severe flooding, has appealed to the Geological Service for a warning system, at the suggestion of the Northwest Ohio Flood Mitigation Partnership.

"We've got the USGS putting together a (warning system) proposal for us similar to the one Findlay is installing," said Jeffrey Loehrke, Ottawa's community development director.

Geological Survey representatives gave a presentation to Ottawa Village Council last month, he said. Council gave approval at its March 16 meeting for the USGS to detail the scope and cost of the project.

Loehrke said Ottawa has one flood gauge, located at the South Oak Street bridge downtown, that was installed in the 1980s and upgraded about a year ago.

Village officials have been using it, along with Findlay's five gauges, to prepare for floods, but would like a more detailed system with more gauges in Putnam County.

"We recognize the fact that the Army Corps of Engineers' projects for mitigation could be (built) years from now. We still have a responsibility to our citizens to get accurate, up-to-date information out there for people to prepare themselves," said Loehrke.

Already the U.S. Department of Agriculture has told Ottawa that it has "tentatively budgeted up to $50,000" to help pay for a Geological Service flood warning system study there.

More information on Findlay's flood warning system via the National Weather Service Web site will be published when it is publicly launched.