In the Wake of the Flood

Aug. 12, 2004
City of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio responds to flood in unconventional way

About the author: Ralph J. Davila is a public relations representative for the city of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. He can be reached at 330/207-5167 or [email protected].


Major storm events, many classified as “100-year storms,” swept across the nation last year, causing millions of dollars in damages. One city in particular was affected in a way its residents will not forget. Cuyahoga Falls, a city of 50,000 and one of the most severely impacted areas in northeast Ohio, was declared a federal disaster zone by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as torrential storms caused two area deaths and severe home damage.

As a result, the city created a plan of attack and implemented The Cuyahoga Falls Flood Prevention Initiative. More than 450 homeowners were visited door-to-door by contracted engineers to gather data, check pipes and learn about the circumstances of each individual homeowner.

“We needed to know why this flooding was occurring and what we could do to protect our homeowners from further damages,” said Don L. Robart, mayor of Cuyahoga Falls.

Cuyahoga Falls implemented the initiative, in which an independent engineering firm worked with the city to solve the flooding issue through various tests.

The city already dedicated many resources on its citizens’ well-being to determine the causes of the flooding and how they can plan, prepare and prevent future stormwater effects.

The municipality is also utilizing financial assistance from FEMA, coupled with their own, to provide assistance to the nearly 700 residents who suffered damages to their homes from the flooding caused by the storms.

“Our citizens come first and I am dedicated to their safety and welfare as their mayor,” Robart declared. “I’ve lived here all my life and believe in the resolve of our citizens and this town.”

Flood causes

To ensure Cuyahoga Falls’ residents had all of the tools needed to understand what had happened and how to correct it, engineers from the firm McCoy Associates, Inc., an engineering consulting firm, were contracted to find the cause of the flooding.

“It’s an honor to work with the city on this extremely important project,” said Mitchell McCoy, president of McCoy Associates, Inc. “The heavy flooding has been a struggle for many cities and towns in this part of Ohio the past year, and it’s great to see a city step up and take care of its residents.”

McCoy engineers performed free in-home inspections in more than 450 homes to determine the causes of the 2003 summer floods. Engineers went door-to-door and made hundreds of calls to assess the damage and find a resolution. This was a first program of its kind in northeast Ohio; engineers going door-to-door, taking down information and surveying the problem.

“We’ve never done or heard anything like this before,” said McCoy. “Going door-to-door was definitely a first for us and quite unconventional, but it was a worthy task that will truly benefit the residents of Cuyahoga Falls.” The inspections resulted in a free recommendation specific to each property owner’s situation. They also provided a more comprehensive look at the overall status of the sanitary sewer and clean water drainage systems. “We want to provide everyone with the opportunity to have a professional assessment,” Robart said. “Our goal is to prevent flooding effects for all the citizens of Cuyahoga Falls.”

Working with the homeowners

The city offered three presentations to the residents of Cuyahoga Falls to inform them of the results of the initiative and explain in further detail what testing was done, what was found and what will be done to protect the city from future stormwater flooding.

The presentations were given to the residents whose homes were affected, with more than 200 homeowners attending. The homeowners were able to ask questions to a panel of engineering experts and learn more about what they can do on their own, and also with the assistance of the city, to plan, prepare and prevent future stormwater flooding.

The presentation was a compilation of the free home inspections, calls, tests and research done by the municipality and McCoy Associates, Inc. The result was that the main cause of the flooding was clean water being allowed to enter the sanitary sewer system and cause overflows during periods of severe weather.

Another major reason cited for the overflows were unknown stormwater tie-ins to the sanitary sewer pipes. This caused excessive water to flood the pipes and when the major storm event occurred, overflow was eminent.

The engineering firm found that statistically, if six homes’ stormwater systems were improperly tied in to the sanitary sewer pipes, more than 200 homes could be flooded as a result.

The testing process

There were three types of tests done to come to this conclusion—smoke testing, CCTV testing and dye testing.

In the smoke test, smoke was pumped into the sanitary sewer system within a given street. Engineers observed smoke releasing from homeowners’ yards, driveways, drain spouts and other areas. This revealed areas in which water could be infiltrating the system.

Another test was the CCTV test. A camera was sent into the pipes where it searched for obstructions and deficiencies in the system. The video taken from the test showed cracks in the pipes, large obstructions and many areas where clean water was entering the sewage system. The dye test was conducted by shooting colored dye into the storm systems and following its flow until it escaped from cracks, obstructions and holes in the sanitary pipes. This test was another factor in McCoy’s final evaluation of the city’s flooding problem.

Cuyahoga Falls also offered one-on-one information sessions with homeowners after the presentations to provide more detailed information on the homeowner’s individualized report card.

“Protecting each homeowner’s property was above all the most important issue here,” Robart said. “I want to be able to look my residents in the eye and say your homes will be safe from these damaging floods.”

Further research

The city is in the process of initiating another study to gather additional information regarding the sanitary sewer system. The Flood Prevention Initiative was the first step in collecting more data and correcting any problems identified.

“The city launched the Flood Prevention Initiative to proactively address future stormwater concerns in Cuyahoga Falls,” said Valerie Wax Carr, service director for Cuyahoga Falls. “We are committed to the planning and preparation needed to prevent the negative effects of a future large storm event.”

The city of Cuyahoga Falls is one of the few municipal districts in the region taking on the daunting task of flood prevention.

The city’s unique approach has put it ahead of the pack when it comes to flood prevention. Other surrounding communities have been asking them for advice on how to spearhead their own initiatives.

“We are a year ahead of surrounding communities in solving this problem,” Carr said.

She added that the residents are the city’s top priority, and they will do whatever it takes to make them feel safe and secure in their homes.

What’s to come

A new funding resource was created recently for the Flood Prevention Initiative. This extra financial support is necessary in facilitating an accurate and thorough program. It will also assist the monies already put in by the city to solve the flooding issues.

Cuyahoga Falls also created a temporary solution to the flooding issues by having homeowners install backflow preventers to stop basement backup during heavy rainfall.

The long-term goal is to begin another study to delve into the ways in which the pipes can be repaired to withstand future heavy rainfall and stormwater events. Then, a plan of action will be created to repair damaged pipes and connections and protect residents’ homes in the future. From the program’s inception, the city and McCoy Associates, Inc., laid out a plan and executed it by using rather unconventional methods, including door-to-door inspections, flooding diagnosis through three tests and other non-traditional assessments.

The intense storms that were experienced by Cuyahoga Falls’ residents in the summer of 2003 left a mark on its citizens, surrounding communities and have created a new level of understanding and appreciation for what damage powerful weather conditions can cause.

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