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Expert: Tough decisions to be made to fix flash flooding in Flagstaff

Posted at 6:27 PM, Aug 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-01 00:15:55-04

FLAGSTAFF, AZ — A professor with Northern Arizona University says tough decisions will need to be made to fix flash flooding down the burn scars of the Museum Fire in Flagstaff, and those decisions will fall on elected officials.

Dr. Ben Ruddell, a hydrologist, and licensed civil engineer said the damage from flash flooding we’re seeing in Flagstaff, is just the start of it.

Ruddell says that infrastructure in Flagstaff was not built appropriately 50 to 100 years ago, “we didn’t build to protect against floods, and so the older parts of the communities typically aren’t built to modern flood control standards, it takes a lot of money to fix that.”

Across the Flagstaff area, there are 700,000 sandbags and 7,600 lineal feet of barriers installed in the Museum Flood area, according to local officials.

But, is that solution working?

“It’s a temporary solution,” said Dr. Ruddell, “it’s hard to call that a solution, that's flood protection, that’s an effort by the city to protect some of the houses in Sunnyside from the inevitable flooding problem.”

Dr. Ruddell explains that there needs to be a channel basically the size of a river through Flagstaff to hold the water that comes into the area.

One area in Flagstaff, in particular, the Sunnyside neighborhood, has been hit repeatedly by flash flooding.

That area is a location where people like Mark Apodaca feel like they have no communication from city or county officials.

“I feel like this area just gets neglected, it always does,” said Apodaca.

Apodaca rents his property in the Sunnyside area, but can’t up and leave because of how much rental prices have gone up in Flagstaff.

He showed ABC15 how he feels his pile of sandbags isn’t helping, “I’ve requested jersey barriers, along here since they’re channeling it this way, kind of like Grandview Drive, no response.”

Around the corner from Apodaca lives Lyndsey Kuche, who is still working on cleanup after the flash flood that came through Sunnyside nearly two weeks ago.

Küche compares the flooding that happens in her neighborhood differently than what is seen in the Grandview area, “we don’t just have burn scar material, we have trash cans, dead animals, oil, gas and rotten furniture, sailing down the street and just dumping all over the place.”

Kuche tells us there is no assistance for those like her who need assistance to rebuild.

Her husband worked as a Flagstaff hotshot for decades, but now is in need of a kidney transplant, and she worries about the unsafe environment they’re now living in.

“For us, we can’t bring him home to an environment that’s not clean, that has type 3 sludge all over the place, has rotten walls, we can’t afford that,” said Kuche.

Dr. Ruddell said tough decisions need to be made in Flagstaff, and it is on the local leaders, but state and federal officials need to help as well.

“The leadership choice comes down to people moving out of the way, and fixing the problem, building a correct infrastructure, or letting the problem happen,” he said.

Both options are expensive.

RELATED: The Coconino County Flood Control District (FCD) and the City of Flagstaff held an Engineering Summit to try to identify flood mitigation strategies for the Museum Fire area. Click here to watch that meeting.

Dr. Ruddell explained that homes in these flood plains were built 50 to 100 years ago when there were no regulations with building standards — he argues many of these properties would not be built where they are in modern standards.

There is the question of eminent domain, and if officials can buy out the properties in the flood zone, for reasonable compensation to move homeowners out of the way.

“It’s not an engineering decision, it’s a political decision, we have to decide whether we're going to spend the money to get that done or not, and who is going to end up paying for it, that’s a political question, it’s a leadership question,” said Dr. Ruddell.

As of right now, emergency management officials in Arizona say they will not request a federal disaster declaration for the latest flash flood in Flagstaff on August 17 because it will not meet the $9.9 million threshold for a declaration.

ABC15 reached out to FEMA representatives to see if there are any grants or assistance available to help in Flagstaff, a spokesperson responded by email:

If a disaster declaration is approved for Public Assistance, the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) is available to state and local governments to utilize 15% of the total cost of a disaster to implement long term mitigation measures.

Property acquisition of repetitively flooded properties may be an eligible activity under all of FEMA’s mitigation grant programs: Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA) Grant and Building Resilient Infrastructure (BRIC) are annually funded programs not linked to a specific disaster. HMGP becomes available after declared disasters.

The Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA) Grant Program is a competitive grant program that provides funding to states, local communities, federally recognized tribes and territories. Funds can be used for projects that reduce or eliminate the risk of repetitive flood damage to buildings insured by the National Flood Insurance Program [] []. FEMA chooses recipients based on the applicant’s ranking of the project and the eligibility and cost-effectiveness of the project. FEMA requires state, local, tribal and territorial governments to develop and adopt hazard mitigation plans [] [] as a condition for receiving certain types of non-emergency disaster assistance, including funding for hazard mitigation assistance [] [] projects. For more information, go to the Hazard Mitigation Assistance Guidance [] [].

The Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) will support states, local communities, tribes and territories as they undertake hazard mitigation projects, reducing the risks they face from disasters and natural hazards. FEMA released the BRIC Notice of Funding Opportunity NOFO [] []on Aug. 9, 2021. This funding opportunity is posted on [] [] and provides detailed program information and other grant application and administration requirements.”