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Here’s A Look At Louisville’s Disaster Preparedness Plan

A hard rain is going to fall.

At least, that's what weather experts are predicting for the coming days in the Louisville Metro area as remnants of Hurricane Harvey make their way north.

Louisville isn’t expected to get anywhere near the amount of rain that's fallen in Houston and other parts of Texas in recent days. But the few inches of rain that are forecast -- coupled with Louisville's location on the Ohio River -- could still cause some problems.

Is Louisville prepared for flood-like conditions?

"It just depends on the size of the storm," said Tony Marconi, who leads the flood prevention work for the Metropolitan Sewer District, the agency that's tasked with managing floods in Louisville.

Marconi said rains like those that fell on Texas this week would overwhelm any city.

"Because it's epic in nature," he said.

This week, city sewer crews have been prepping for what could be up to five inches of rain, Marconi said.

Up to two inches of rain in a 24-hour period can cause "issues," he said. Any more than that and viaducts and low lying areas can become flooded.

"The rain just can't move," he said.

Crews have been cleaning out catch basins -- those grated pits in neighborhoods and along sidewalks meant to direct rain water to urban creeks and streams.

That's a key factor in preventing what Marconi calls "inland flooding."

Louisville is prone to two types of flooding: Inland flooding and Ohio River flooding.

Inland flooding happens when heavy rains overload the city’s drainage system and water can’t escape to the Ohio River, Marconi said. River flooding happens when heavy rains or snow melt drench the Ohio River Valley and the river rises into the city.

To protect against this flooding, Marconi said it’s imperative to keep drainage and retention basins and ditches free of debris. He also said the city should invest in needed repairs and upgrades to existing pump systems and infrastructure.

Sewer officials have been adamant that they need more money to improve the system. Just this week a sewer collapse created a traffic snarl on Main Street -- and those pumps designed to protect the city from rising water are quickly becoming outdated.

Marconi said the Ohio River flood protection system needs about $690 million for upgrades and repairs and the inland flood protection system needs more than $1 billion to make ditches larger and build more detention basins.

But Metro Council members have so far denied requested rate hikes to fund the work.

Marconi said as the earth’s climate changes, big rain events are only becoming more common.

"Whether you think it’s climate change or you think we’re in a wet period -- no matter the argument -- we know we are seeing more water and we need to start making plans to address it," he said.

Louisville isn’t a stranger to epic floods.

In January 1937, the Ohio River rose and swamped more than 60 percent of the city, causing mass evacuations, power outages and 90 deaths, according to the Louisville Encyclopedia. The flood lasted 23 days and led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct 29 miles of floodwall and earthen levee, 16 flood pumping stations, nearly 150 floodgates and 80 floodwall closures.

Marconi said such a flood is unlikely today because the river is more controlled than it was decades ago. If it did, the focus would be on disaster response.

That is where the local government's push to become a "resilient city" comes in.

Eric Friedlander is the city’s chief resilience officer and his job is to consider how Louisville might bounce back after the stress of a huge flood or other natural disasters.

He said a flood here – like most cities – would have the biggest impact on the most vulnerable populations.

"People in poverty. Some people ask why didn’t people evacuate Houston – well some folks don’t have cars," he said. "It gets down to a real basic level."

In Louisville, Friedlander said bouncing back from a flood requires work on the front end to combat poverty and inequality, and to speak up about the need for improved transportation access and infrastructure and ensuring nearby factories have backup power options.

"These are things we know are going to happen," he said. "We have to make the investments."

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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