CHAPEL HILL — Many people were surprised when rain swamped homes and cars in under 30 minutes June 30.
The hardest-hit areas, though, were all too familiar.
Town officials and property owners say there is no easy or inexpensive fix. While many parts of Chapel Hill and Carrboro were affected, the worst damage was to properties in floodplains and watersheds hit with an unusual amount of water.
“I hope people have the context of this being a record-setting rainfall,” Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said. “You don’t necessarily plan for a once-in-a-lifetime event.”
Sue Burke, Chapel Hill’s stormwater management engineer, said the answer isn’t as simple as bigger pipes or floodwalls. It will require looking at each creek basin to mitigate the flooding that results when underground culverts back up, she said.
Orange County Emergency Services Director Jim Groves plans to consult with public works officials and look at how to warn people faster next time.
“Anything we can do to prevent people being flooded out of their homes, we’re going to do,” he said.
The town’s largest commercial area lies at the bottom of several hills, along three state highways, and in the Bolin and Booker creek floodplains. In the past, drivers heading east to Durham would take a two-lane road through swampland and forest.
That changed in the 1950s when the state built the U.S. 15-501 Bypass. In 1960, Eastgate was built. University Mall followed in 1973 after low-lying areas were raised 6 feet using dirt from higher ground. There were no rules about building in a floodplain.
The last major flood at Eastgate, in 2000, cost millions, forcing some businesses to move.
A consultant’s 2001 study concluded there wasn’t a solution, but the damage could be limited. Property owner Federal Realty Investment Trust tore up the parking lot to clean and expand the drainage system. Merchants were required to get flood insurance, and the town agreed to keep downstream culverts clean and build a park to help drain the water.
Eastgate merchants said they suffered less damage this time. Deirdre Johnson, Federal Realty’s senior director of asset management, said they’re still assessing the cost, but the upgrades worked as expected.
The damage also was limited at University Mall, where stormwater drainage and basins were added to the parking lot several years ago.
Burke said the town is working with a consultant to study stormwater and new ways to control it in the Ephesus-Fordham corridor. The work is part of the Chapel Hill 2020 Plan, which calls for extending Elliott Road south across Fordham Boulevard, creating space for office, retail and residential buildings. Rams Plaza, which also drains toward Eastgate, and the Village Plaza shopping center also would be redeveloped.
At Camelot Village, where 60 percent of the apartments were condemned, the answers are complicated..
Camelot Village owns the strip of land surrounding Bolin Creek, but property manager Joel Duvall said the creek is in the public right of way and stormwater comes from properties upstream. Town officials point out Estes Drive, Franklin Street and Fordham Boulevard are all state-maintained highways, but the Department of Transportation doesn’t consider rare flooding when designing roads.
“The culvert drainage system is designed to handle normal rainfall and the occasional major storm without incidents of flooding, and the system in that area does that,” spokesman Steve Abbott said..
The situation is slightly different at the Rocky Brook Mobile Home Park in Carrboro, which also was built next to a creek.
Layton Curl, who owns several flooded trailers, blames the vacant Triem-Electric Inc. property across the street for most of the problem. Both properties lie at the bottom of South Greensboro Street, a steep drop that channels stormwater from downtown. There are very few stormwater pipes on either property, and water spilling over at Triem rushes into Rocky Brook. From there, it goes into a pipe under the street, which can back up quickly.