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City pursues grants for stormwater problems

When a strong rain front poured nearly two inches of rain on Whiteville Saturday, city officials were out in the weather looking for problems.

“This isn’t something that the city is ignoring,” said Fire Marshal Hal Lowder.

The city has qualified for a $150,000 stormwater study to identify specific problem areas in the city’s drainage system. The money is from a Golden LEAF grant established in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, which left an estimated $1 million in total damages in Whiteville alone. Two more grants are pending, Lowder said.

“With any problem, you have to identify it before you can solve it,” he said. “We have an old system in many areas, and there’s no way to tell where some of the pipes are located. You can’t just go out and start digging a hole in the street.”

The two additional grants will target Maultsby and Canal streets with $189,000 in improvements, and $578,000 for improvements to the areas of Lee and Main streets.

“If we can keep the water flowing through those areas,” Lowder said, “we can get the water off downtown and into the big canal. That will pull the water from other neighborhoods as well.”

The outflow from Mollie’s Branch heads into Soules Swamp, and overflow from that drainage goes through downtown to Canal Street, where it empties into the street’s namesake. Some of the drainage systems are a combination of public and private ditches, laterals and pipes that were probably installed when the area below Commerce Street was the city dump. Fill dirt was placed on top of the dump to provide buildable land on the edges of the swamp in the 1920s and 1930s. Continued expansion of hard surfaces such as streets and parking lots prevents the ground from absorbing much of the stormwater that ends up downtown.

Some of those areas – including the Progress Energy substation – saw the deepest flooding in the city during Matthew. The hurricane was the third and worst time downtown flooded last year, coming as it did when swamps were full and the ground saturated from previous storms.

Rehabilitating the key sections of the system is a big part of improving drainage downtown, but identifying the problems is the first step. That’s why city officials were checking drains during the heavy rains Saturday.

“There has never been a survey downtown,” Lowder said. “There was apparently some funding for the system back in about 2000, but the survey was never completed. We have to find the pipes before we can fix them.”

Whiteville isn’t the only stakeholder in the drainage problems in the city, Lowder explained.

“Some of the places we have identified are actually on private property,” he said. “The city doesn’t go on private property to clean ditches. That’s the responsibility of the landowner. On top of that, we have three major DOT roads through downtown – Franklin, Madison and Lee streets. The DOT has to give permission before those roads can be torn up and the drainage repaired, and those roads are the state’s responsibility, anyway. The city can’t go around tearing up a state-owned road without permission.

“The survey is going to give us a new tool to work with,” Lowder said. “It will give us a better idea where things are, and how we can make improvements to the system.”

In the meantime, Lowder said, city staff will continue using the vacuum truck to clear what drains can be emptied of debris and trash, and blowing out blockages in other pipes.

“The system won’t be repaired overnight, even if we get the funding,” Lowder said. “The city’s doing everything it can to make sure we’re as ready as we can be if we get another Matthew coming through here.”

At the same time, Lowder urged landowners to clear their own ditches and drainage areas.

“This is a concern for everybody, not just the city, but we’re working on it,” Lowder said.

By Jefferson Weaver - Staff Writer - The News Reporter

Stuart Rogers