The beleaguered town of Edmonston in Maryland once flooded four times in as many years, driving some residents to seriously consider packing up and moving. But that talk has ended as the town prepares to take the last in a series of steps to hold back the waters.
In addition to going “green” in recent years by replacing pavement with permeable stone, installing retention ponds to soak up stormwater and getting a $6 million upgrade to a pumping station that sucks up floodwater, the Prince George’s County community this summer is preparing to add up to three feet to the earthen levees that wall off the Anacostia River.
The higher levees are being constructed by the county as part of a nationwide effort by the Federal Emergency Management Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to improve the barriers after they failed to protect New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
As the swollen Mississippi and Missouri rivers wash away farms and homes farther west, federal and local officials are becoming increasingly wary of the frequency of so-called once-in-a-lifetime floods and storms.
Sitting at the bottom of a geological basin in the Anacostia watershed, Edmonston (population: 1,500) seemed to drown after every major downpour.
“We flooded year after year, four years in a row,” said former Edmonston mayor Adam Ortiz. But, he said, the Anacostia wasn’t the problem. “It came from parking lots, roadways, shopping centers,” he said.
Ortiz was partly right, said officials with the county’s Department of Public Works and Transportation. Stormwater contributed significantly to Edmonston’s flooding, but the reasons were more complex than he described.
County officials said Edmonston’s chronic flooding was due to a combination of factors.
A sizable chunk of the town sits in a flood plain where stormwater from neighboring municipalities rushes during heavy rains. A retention pond was created to collect the stormwater, and a pumping station was built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s to send excess water past the levee and into the river downstream.
But the station’s 44,800-gallons-per-minute pumping capacity could not keep up with stormwater, which has increased over the years because of commercial and residential development.
The stormwater problem was compounded by rain, which also causes the river to rise. When the Anacostia rose too high, a gate that kept it from sloshing water into the retention pond was triggered to close, so the overflowing water in the retention pond washed into the town.
The county determined that the pumping station was the weakest link. In 2007, the county added three new pumps with a capacity of 224,800 gallons per minute. Edmonston hasn’t flooded since.
In addition to a better pump, the town needed stronger levees to comply with federal standards FEMA set after Katrina. Without the improvements, flood insurance costs would remain high. The flood maps that insurers use to set rates would be drawn as if the current levees didn’t exist.
Town Administrator Guy Tiberio said that since the county spent $6 million to upgrade the pumping station in 2007, he has noticed that during a couple of big rains, “the things were working just like they’re supposed to work.”
Even with all of the precautions, 24 properties in Edmonston might still flood because they sit so low in the basin, officials said.
Around town, 12-year-old Stephanie Duarte still worries about water rising to her waist, as it did in 2006. Sophia Layne Bee said floodwaters lifted her pool table to the basement ceiling that year. And Bill Fronk said he never again wants to paddle from his porch in a canoe.
Bee and her husband were packing for the beach when the rain came. They were still planning to go even as her husband pumped out water. “But it was coming with such force,” she recalled. “We watched it rise and rise and rise.”
Edmonston, which was established in 1924 on land first settled by a former slave and sits between Bladensburg and Hyattsville, is plagued by a trend that low-lying communities nationwide experience: new construction that adds impervious parking lots, sidewalks and driveways. The hard surfaces funnel enormous quantities of stormwater to the basin where Edmonston sits.
In December 2003, a hard and melting snow deluged the town. There was more flooding about two years later on July 4, and again that October. The following summer brought yet another flood.
It would help if developers created green roofs (which are costlier), flower boxes for curbs, retention ponds, grassy areas and permeable stone to soak up stormwater, but they rarely do, Ortiz said.
“When people cut environmental corners, someone pays a price someway, somehow, sometime. And for many years, that place was Edmonston,” he said.
Edmonston chose to become part of a second, more progressive trend, in which river communities are fighting back with technology and ecology. It completed a “Green Street” project to soak up some of the water that flows its way and added retention ponds all over town to corral water so that it seeps into the ground.
“In scientific terms, this system will capture the first 1.33 inches of rainfall during a storm, which means about 90 percent of all rain showers in a typical year will be completely filtered,” according to the town’s Web site.
Decatur Street, which cuts through town, has bike lanes created with permeable pavement that allows rainwater to filter through rather than run untouched into the Anacostia. Rain gardens, or flower boxes, were placed near curb cuts along the streets so rain could snake into dirt rather than run elsewhere.
Stephanie Duarte, the middle-schooler, went to the town planning meetings for Green Street.
“I was the only child there,” she said. “I actually did speak up. They cooperated with my knowledge. They actually listened and paid attention.”
Others are also paying attention, Tiberio said. Green Street, he said, was in part a public relations tool to show other municipalities that they can better manage stormwater and flooding.
“Bladensburg is working on it. Hyattsville is planning retention ponds. Every one of them has called us,” Tiberio said.