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A century's worth of work has made Fort Wayne less flood-prone

City has tried three different types of flood-control approaches

Thursday, March 21, 2013 - 12:01 am

In the century since the Flood of 1913, most ideas for public projects to reduce the impact of floods have fallen into one of three categories:

•Pen up rising waters with levees and flood walls.

•Evade flood damage by demolishing houses and businesses in the path of floodwaters.

•Change the flow of water in rivers and creeks by widening their channels, straightening their bends or diverting their water around Fort Wayne.

Fort Wayne has tried a bit of each of these approaches ever since. Together, a century's worth of preventative measures haven't produced a cure, but they do ensure that deep floods cause less damage today.

Even before the 1913 flood, the city had been through several significant floods, such as one in 1908. So when the 1913 flood came, at least one major defense against flooding already was in place – a levee along the Maumee River protecting the Lakeside neighborhood.

Before the end of 1913, a report to the Fort Wayne Citizens' Flood Prevention Committee presented a stunning agenda of fixes that including dredging and excavating rivers so that more water could flow through them, replacing street and railroad bridges so that they could span widened rivers, building new levees and floodwalls, and digging a massive bypass to shunt floodwaters from the St. Marys River around the east side of Fort Wayne to the Maumee.

Only a small part of that was accomplished in the next few years, though many more studies – in 1954, 1972, 1976, 1984, 1988 and later – would follow.

•1915: The city began replacing the Columbia and Van Buren street bridges. It began buying land along rivers to stop people from filling in the banks. And it improved and raised the levee along Edgewater Avenue to better protect the Lakeside neighborhood, while also extending its reach from Pemberton Drive to Lake Avenue.

•1916: A concrete floodwall was built along St. Joe Boulevard from the Tennessee Street bridge to slightly south of McDougal Avenue.

•1956: The Lakeside levee was repaired, and low spots in that levee were raised to 2 feet above the level of the 1913 flood. A concrete floodwall about 725 feet long was built north along St. Joe Boulevard starting at the State Boulevard bridge.

•1960: After the flood of 1959, the Army Corps of Engineers repaired and improved the Mechanic Street dike, between Elm and Huron streets on the St. Marys River. A footbridge on Mechanic Street was raised 3 feet, and the Corps widened a 700-foot stretch of the river so that its bottom width was 78 feet.

•1980: After the 1978 flood, a major improvement of levees along Spy Run Creek and parts of the St. Joseph and St. Marys rivers was completed.

•1982: Within months of the second-worst flood of the century, the Corps completed an “emergency rehabilitation” of levees on the St. Joseph, St. Marys and Maumee rivers.

•1984: In a flood-control study after the flood of 1982, the Army Corps of Engineers noted that “scattered low levees have been constructed along each of the rivers, but they protect against only the lowest flood stages.”

•Early 1980s: After the 1982 flood, the city of Fort Wayne began another series of flood-control measures, including repairing and improving the Lakeside and Nebraska neighborhood dikes, buying land to remove repeatedly flooded properties and installing backwater gates on the outflows of storm-sewer drains to prevent river water from backing up into streets after storms. It also created a better flood-alert system.

The effect? In 1982, the Maumee crested at 25.9 feet, just a few inches shy of its 1913 crest. Damage was $56.1 million. In 1985, the river crested at its third-highest level, 24.5 feet, and the damage was only $4 million.

•1992: An $8 million widening project along the Maumee River was completed. It built a new channel along several miles of the Maumee River east of Fort Wayne. The aim was to increase the capacity of the river and move water through faster so that it wouldn't rise as far. The widening was among the most contested flood-control measures in recent decades; environmentalists doubted that it would reduce flood crests as much as the projected 1.3 feet.

•1999: Headwaters Park, a 30-acre park in the “thumb” of the St. Marys River on the north side of downtown, was completed at a cost of more than $16 million. More than half that money came in donations from individual and organizations. All the flood-prone properties in that thumb, including several businesses, were demolished and removed to make way for the park. Headwaters can be flooded with little resulting damage.

•2001: The city's most extensive and expensive flood-control project – more than 10 miles of dikes along its three rivers – was completed. The Army Corps plan cost about $50 million. It was built in four phases:

•The first phase starts upstream from Kerrway Court, near Lakeside Middle School, and winds along the north bank of the Maumee River to the Columbia Avenue Bridge. It protects the Lakeside area from a 100-year flood of the Maumee River.

•The second phase heads upstream from the Columbia Avenue Bridge on the east bank of the St. Joseph River, across State Boulevard to Concordia Lutheran High School. It protects homes and businesses north of the Maumee and east of the St. Joseph, including a big part of the Northside neighborhood.

•The third phase winds along the west bank of the St. Joseph from just north of State, down to the Maumee River, then heads back north on the east bank of Spy Run Creek to State. It protects the Lawton Park and Spy Run neighborhoods.

•The fourth phase winds from Clinton – near Science Central – along the north bank of the St. Marys to the confluence of Junk Ditch, then up the north bank of the ditch to West Main Street at the railroad elevation. It protects the Nebraska and Bloomingdale neighborhoods, among others.

•2006: After serious floods in 2003 and 2005, the city issued a $17 million bond to finance more voluntary buyouts of repeatedly flooded properties, to improve drainage in about 100 trouble spots and to fortify neighborhoods against floods. The biggest of these projects, completed in 2008, built a mile of floodwalls from the edge of Foster Park along the St. Marys River to Airport Expressway.

•2008: After voluntary buyouts of properties along Spy Run Creek on Westbrook Drive, the city turned an area south of State Boulevard into a large rain garden.