Lake Resiliency Project in New York Relies on Storm Drain Improvements

A new $2.67 million project designed to boost flood resiliency at Irondequoit Bay State Marine Park in upstate New York is relying in part on storm drain system improvements being made by the New York State Department of Transportation.

[Above photo courtesy of New York State DOT.]

The project – part of the Lake Ontario Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative – aims to repair damage from flooding in 2017 and 2019, plus raise the boat launch, docks and parking lot so they can continue to operate during times of high water. In addition to elevating the parking area and boat launch, the project will consist of additional transient docks, a playground, an American with Disabilities Act-accessible fishing pier, and a recreational pavilion.

“This project will bolster Irondequoit’s ability to withstand increasingly frequent high waters, helping New York’s first responders during emergencies on the lake and incentivizing recreational boaters who make critical contributions to the regional economy,” explained Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) in a statement.

But to provide long-term resiliency for those marine park improvements, the Town of Irondequoit – in partnership with the the NYSDOT – is breaking ground on a project to improve storm drainage sewers as part of an upgrade to Culver Road, which serves as the transportation “gateway” to Irondequoit Bay State Marine Park. NYSDOT is providing the know-how and part of the storm drain project’s $500,000 funding to mitigate roadway flooding while reducing the need for road closures during high water events as keeping the road open is vital for maintaining access to local businesses and emergency services in the area.

The storm drain project also involves installing new check valves and creating permanent connections for temporary water pumps, as necessary, as well as re-direct floodwaters away from homes in the area to prevent flooding of residential households, NYSDOT noted.

“Through our work as part of Governor Cuomo’s REDI [Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative] Commission, [we are] ensuring the safety of residents and businesses along the southern shores of Lake Ontario, one community at a time, while also increasing resiliency and building back better with every project,” noted Marie Therese Dominguez, NYSDOT commissioner.

“This project to improve storm drainage will help mitigate future flooding and promote sustainability so that the Town of Irondequoit, with its beaches, marinas, and breathtaking views, continues to be a wonderful summer destination for thousands to enjoy every year,” she added. Governor Cuomo’s office noted that New York’s 250 individual parks, historic sites, recreational trails, and boat launches generate critical economic activity for the state. His office said all four combined were visited by a record 77 million people in 2019, with a recent university study indicating that spending by state parks and its visitors supports $5 billion in output and sales, 54,000 private-sector jobs and more than $2.8 billion in additional state gross domestic product.

Colorado DOT Works to Minimize Monsoon Impact on Roadways

As state departments of transportation along the East Coast sharpen their disaster plans ahead of the peak point of the 2020 hurricane season – with mid-Atlantic and Northeastern state DOTs already grappling with flooding and high-wind damage cause by tropical storm Isaias – the Colorado Department of Transportation is deploying strategies to combat the summer monsoon season, which typically runs from mid-July until mid-September.

[Above photo courtesy of Colorado DOT.]

Monsoons – a term coined in the 19th century by the British in India to describe the big seasonal winds and heavy rainfall coming from the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea – can create flash flooding, mudslides, and rock falls that can severely damage affect Colorado roadways; causing major dilemmas for the traveling public and Colorado DOT maintenance crews.  

For example, a seven-day-long flood event in September 2013 left behind a path of destruction over an area of 2,380 square miles, causing $700 million in roadway damage. Colorado also endured a major rock fall event in 2016 during monsoon season that closed I-70 in the Glenwood Canyon for approximately two weeks. 

Those events encouraged state officials to take a deeper look into improving the resilience of Colorado infrastructure. As a result, the Colorado DOT and the Colorado Division Office of Federal Highway Administration worked to develop a plan to proactively identify and address vulnerabilities of the state’s roadway system to threats like flooding and landslides. 

As a part of that plan, the two agencies kick-started the I-70 Risk and Resilience or R&R pilot project August 2016; examining 450 miles of I-70 from the Utah border in the west to the Kansas border to identify the potential for future damage and roadway closures due to extreme weather-related events such as monsoons.

The R&R pilot project – completed in the fall 2017 – provided risk and resilience information for assets along I-70 and helped the Colorado DOT prioritize work at key locations where risk is high and resiliency is currently low. 

One of the areas identified as an important risk factor to road closures was culvert risk mitigation planning. Lizzie Kemp, Colorado DOT’s resiliency program manager, said that the study found flooding is the largest corridor risk when looking at user costs due to delays, with 80 percent of that risk due to minor culvert failure. 

She noted that Colorado has nearly 60,000 culverts that fall into this “minor” category – under 4 feet long – and so the agency first prioritized repairing and/or replacing such culverts found in poor condition along critical routes. To help with that prioritization effort, the agency uses a Geographical Information System or GIS-based Culvert Risk Assessment tool (created by Gerry Shisler for the Colorado DOT) that takes data available statewide and uses it to identify culverts, their condition, and whether they are located on “critical” roadways. 

The Colorado DOT found approximately 1,000 culverts across the state were in poor condition on critical routes and the agency than used that information to development and implement a three-step mitigation plan:

  • Step 1: Maintenance patrols complete an inspection of identified high-risk culverts and update the condition in the minor culvert database tool.
  • Step 2: Identify and document specific proposed mitigation actions for each culvert based on inspection, which could include replacing the culvert or making minor repairs.
  • Step 3: If replacement or repair is too costly or not possible, identify and document a specific operations plan which may include increased cleanout frequency and installation of technology to monitor hydraulic flows.

The Colorado DOT also found that minor culvert damage caused more than $94 million to roadway users from delays on the I-70 corridor alone; representing 80 percent of all user costs due to flooding.  As a result, the agency expects that preventing minor culvert failure during monsoon flooding events should save hundreds of millions in highway user delay costs across the state.

Dual Disaster Handbook Offers Practical Guidance Amidst Chaos

Effectively managing a state transportation department is hard enough. Leading a state DOT through a crisis is tougher. But what about when two disasters hit simultaneously?

Dr. Shawn Wilson, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, actually had four simultaneous disasters on his plate on Friday, June 5. In addition to transportation issues related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Wilson found himself deeply engaged in a special session of the state legislature looking at serious budget cuts that could affect transportation projects. Meanwhile, civil rights protestors in the wake of the George Floyd killing had already shut down major roadways for three straight evenings in New Orleans while a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico aimed itself straight for the vulnerable Louisiana coast.

Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson with his staff. Photos courtesy Louisiana DOTD

“It’s really a juggling act and you’re juggling some very fragile crystal balls,” Wilson said.

The Louisiana DOTD’s situation is not unique, which is why the American Public Health Association and the American Flood Coalition created the “Dual Disaster Handbook” – a 25-page guide to help public officials plan “a proactive response as communities face multiple threats,” according to an APHA statement.

The handbook is a “practical publication” predicated on the assumption that spring and summer flooding will occur across the country as states are still grappling with COVID-19 related issues. However, the recommendations and checklists are relevant for any crisis management situation, APHA said.

Included in the handbook are several real-world situations that arise during a disaster, such as: the top five procurement mistakes that may lead to an audit; examples of how some agencies properly prepared for and executed plans through a disaster; and checklists of recommended actions for agency leaders who are facing simultaneous disasters.

For example, Louisiana DOTD’s Wilson said that enacting emergency storm operations and evacuation plans became “twice as complicated” because of the ongoing COVID-19 precautions.

“We’re planning for evacuation buses and mobilizing our people, but from a pandemic perspective, we’re also having to take into account screening people and providing PPE,” he explained. “Someone may not want to get on the bus because of COVID-19 and we have to prepare and train our employees to deal with that kind of situation.”

Wilson added that he welcomes the publication of the Dual Disaster Handbook and plans to distribute copies of it to his fellow committee members on the Transportation Research Board’s Committee on Transportation Resilience Metrics.

“When we’re organizing an evacuation, we usually can put at least 46 people on a bus,” he noted. “But during this pandemic, we can only have about 13 people on a bus. When you factor in families and pets, it gets complicated. Sometimes you’re looking at what is the best of the bad choices you have. Dual disasters can be messy work.”