Washington Avenue residents begin long recovery process

By Lynn R. Parks

Jack English didn't admit to being angry. But when he talked about his Washington Avenue neighborhood, and the frequency with which he says it floods, he sat up on the edge of his seat, leaning toward his listener, and his voice got louder. "Anytime we get rain, it floods in here," he said emphatically. "You look around. We have three drains at this end of Washington Avenue, and no other drains. And every place around us drains to here. Sitting here and watching the water get higher and higher and knowing you can't do anything - it is such a feeling of helplessness." English is among the Washington Avenue homeowners who are recovering from last week's flood, the result of a series of storms that dumped up to 15 inches of rain on the Seaford area Sunday night and Monday. The Washington Avenue area was one of several areas in western Sussex County that saw flooding after the storm. That storm carried with it so much rain in a short period of time, said city manager Dolores Slatcher, that some flooding was inevitable. "When you get 13 inches of rain in six hours, there's not a system in the world that's going to handle that," she added. Slatcher said that about two years ago, to solve persistent flooding problems in the Washington Avenue area, the city installed a slotted manhole cover on Washington Avenue, near the parking lot of Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church. "It has handled the job until this rain," she said. "After every rain since then," said Charles Anderson (the city's director of operations) "and I have gone over there and we have not seen any standing water." Even so, English believes that the city of Seaford needs to do something to address what he sees as a persistent flooding problem in his neighborhood. Five years ago, after heavy rains that caused the Hearn's Pond dam to break but before the slotted manhole cover was put in, his home lost part of its foundation in flood waters that filled Washington Avenue. He was not living in the house at the time. But he has pictures of the collapsed wall and of the large hole that was caused when the earth next to the house washed away. "I don't know what the city can do. I'm not an engineer," he said. "But maybe they should get the Army Corps of Engineers in here, to look at everything along with the state and the city. Maybe with the three of them, they could come up with some solution." "There's got to be better drainage here," said Ginny Short, whose Washington Avenue home was surrounded by water in the most recent flood. Her basement was flooded but on Saturday, she said that she didn't think any appliances were damaged. Short blames runoff from the nearby middle school and high school for water problems in her neighborhood. "We get all the water from the schools over here," she said. "You can stand in your yard and see it all coming." English is worried that with all the development that is planned for the Seaford area, flooding in his neighborhoods and in other neighborhoods will only get worse. "Just over there, they are putting a new Lowes," he says, pointing to the east. "And next to it, Home Depot." The Lowes complex is under construction at the corner of U.S. 13 and Herring Run Road. Home Depot is planned for U.S. 13, just north of Lowes. In addition, numerous projects, among them several high-density housing communities, are planned for the Seaford area, including near the intersection of Herring Run Road and alternate U.S. 13, just west of the Lowes complex. "Where is all that water going to go?" asks English. "There's going to be all that blacktop, and all that runoff. We can't handle the water in the city now - what are we going to do then? If we are going to bring more business and homes in, let's fix what we've got first." City manager Slatcher agrees that increased development could exacerbate flooding in the Seaford area. She said that more attention needs to be paid to what she calls a regional approach to storm water management. "I think the days of just worrying about your own backyard are gone," she said. "What we are learning with this latest flooding is that this is a regional problem. Seaford is the last town before the Nanticoke River and we get everything that is coming downstream. Other development is occurring in other areas and we have to look regionally as what is being done. "It may be a little late for developments that have already been approved," she acknowledged. "But for new development, I think Sussex Conservation is going to take a more regional approach." The Sussex Conservation District, which regulates storm water management in the county, is part of both the city and the county building permit process. Slatcher said that she has long believed that small, individual ponds are not adequate for storm water management. At the initial stages of Seaford's Ross Business Park, the city put in a 3-acre storm water management pond, a pond that was not required by the Sussex Conservation District. The district still reviews building permit requests for each construction project in the business park and makes recommendations for individual storm water management ponds. Slatcher cautioned that increased management of storm water will not come without a cost. "Many times, the public does not want to see in increase in fees," she said. "But with events such as these, there may be a willingness on the part of the public to pay increased fees. It takes money to solve these problems."

Where will repair money come from?
Money, and how much it will take to repair flood damage, is on the minds of many people who live along Washington Avenue, where nearly a week after the flood, the normal quiet of the three-block street just off Stein Highway was still being disrupted by the roar of generators and pumps. Trucks belonging to electricians, plumbers and other construction workers were parked against the curbs, streaks of mud on the outside walls of otherwise clean houses marked the high point to which the flood waters rose. In English's house, which he shares with his son Chris, who owns the property, the water inundated the basement, coming to within inches of the first floor floorboards. It ruined all the appliances in the unfinished basement, including the furnace, the electrical breaker box, the hot water heater, the washer and the dryer. Water also rushed in underneath the footer in the front portion of the house where there is just a crawlspace. The water carried with it into the basement plants and dirt from a flowerbed, leaving behind a 4-foot hole at the front of the house. English estimated the damages to his home at more than $7,000. "I guess this is going to cost me $8,000 to $10,000 for each house," said Ron Ruark, who owns two rental properties that sit side by side on the north end of the street. "This could cost me up to $20,000." In one of Ruark's homes, which was vacant, water filled the basement, ruining the furnace, the hot water heater and the electrical breaker box. On Friday afternoon, six days after the rains, Ruark was using a generator-powered pump to suck out water. "I've pumped it out twice and there's about 6 inches of water in there," he said. To a person standing on the street, damage to that home is invisible. But damage to Ruark's other rental home, at 719 Washington Avenue, is obvious: Where a basement wall once stood is now just a gaping hole. An old, rusty oil drum sits at an awkward angle in the hole. "The wall caved in," Ruark said. Residents of the home, who moved in a month ago, are staying with relatives. Ruark counts himself lucky, he added, that the house is still standing. "Nothing's holding it up but the other three walls," he said. "I want to get a structural engineer in here, to tell me what I need to do." As in his other rental property, flood waters ruined the furnace, the hot water heater and the breaker box. It also crept into the back porch and utility room, which were sitting on a cement slab, ruining the carpet. Like most area residents affected by the storm, Ruark and English do not have flood insurance. Simple homeowner's insurance does not pay for damages caused by floods. And neither man is optimistic about receiving any money from the federal government. Jamie Turner, director of the Delaware Emergency Management Agency, told citizens at a Thursday-evening public meeting held at the Seaford Fire Hall that a declaration of a federal disaster area will mean that individuals affected by the flood will be eligible for compensation. Turner said that he expected the state to request such a declaration by the end of last week. And he reassured the audience that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is a better agency than it was when it responded so poorly to the situation in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. "Things have changed since last year," he said. "FEMA has stepped up to the plate since its little problem in the gulf communities. Trust me." Ruark is doubtful. "People after Katrina didn't get a whole lot of help, and I don't expect much," he said. "My son and I got off light," added English. "Our foundation held and we are structurally OK. When I think about what people in Katrina went through, I think we are pretty lucky."

News tips wanted
Call us with ideas for news and features. We're always looking for good stories to share with readers. Call Bryant Richardson at 629-9788.