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Cruz Bay
Thursday, June 13, 2024


The turnout at Wednesday night's first in a series of three town meetings in the territory to discuss flooding problems and how to solve them was small, but the experience of those who chose to take part ran deep.
About a dozen members of the community pointed out that systems have long been in place to mitigate – that is, lessen the impact of – flood damage whenever excessive rain occurs. The problem, they said, is that these systems of dams and diversion ponds are no longer used and, in many cases, are no longer usable without extensive renovation work.
Bruce Potter of Island Resources Foundation, which has been contracted by the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency to develop a flood mitigation plan for the Virgin Islands, commented early on, "The places that flood today are the places that always flooded."
The remark came as those attending the meeting in VITEMA headquarters glanced at computer-generated maps of St. Thomas incorporating aerial photography and state-of-the-art imaging. Purple streaks along coastlines and streaming down from mountain heights represented places known to be flood prone from years of record-keeping and memory-keeping. Green and yellow indicated areas subject to storm surge in the event of different categories of hurricanes.
The "areas of concern" ranged far and wide: Nadir, Savan, Contant, Tutu Valley, Frenchtown, Sugar Estate, Kirwan Terrace, Turpentine Run, Bournefield, Paul M. Pearson Gardens, Bovoni, Havensight, Bordeaux. And more.
Potter noted that it was not enough to prepare a flood mitigation plan keyed to the half-year designated as hurricane season, because "historically some of the greatest rainfall has occurred at other times." Mary Moorhead of the VITEMA staff cited the 24-hour deluge of April 1983 that left Main Street inches deep in mud. Environmentalist Helen Gjessing recalled "steady rain for eight hours" on a Mothers Day probably in 1959 when she remembered seeing a Volkswagen bug "floating down the street."
Potter explained that a tri-island steering committee comprising representatives of local not-for-profit organizations, academic and research entities and government agencies had spent five weeks providing input into documenting flood-prone areas, climatic conditions and efforts at mitigation. Three conclusions emerged, he said:
"First, there is a year-round potential for flooding. Second, there is a high variability in rainfall. And third, what we don't need in the Virgin Islands is another lame institution that doesn't have the resources needed" to meet a mandate to "do something" about the problem.
No V.I. government agency other than VITEMA was represented at the meeting, although Potter said invitations had been extended to a number of departments.
Getting to the bottom is the problem
Roy Howard, a Savan resident, cited the importance of dams to divert downward waterflow. "We try to solve the problem at the bottom, and you can't," he said. "You've got to solve it before it all gets to the bottom." Howard, a leader community efforts to clean out the Savan gut and install filters along its descent, said, "Over the last 12 years, silt and garbage and bottles have piled up 10 feet high" at the bottom.
One participant noted that efforts by individual property owners to keep water away from their homes by "building walls makes it worse." Another commented, "People have a gut leading the water from their home out to the street or onto their neighbor's property."
Alvin Powell Jr., a resident of Nadir for 25 years, noted that flooding occurs in that low-lying area "every single year. If we miss a year, we're lucky." In discussion it was stated that water flows into the area from Brookman Road by the stone quarry, from the surrounding hillsides, from the adjacent public housing, and in the case of hurricanes, even "from the ocean upland." Homes along the 10-foot-deep gut and those across the road in Sanchez Town are inundated when water surges down and overflows the canal "in minutes." Powell said.
The small bridge that serves as a dam will be removed if and when "the bridge to nowhere" is ever linked to a road, he said.
Dams and ponds once worked
Cedric Lewis said there are three dams upstream of the bridge and that cleaning them would have a huge impact. The first, he said, is known as the Lockhart Dam, and silt from construction in the area has completely filled it. Going east, he said, the next is on "the Petersen property" where there is even a waterfall, and farther east is the third, on property owned by the Harthman family.
A dam in Donoe "is also filled with silt," Lewis said, and one in Tutu "is not only filled in but grown to trees." Also, he said, the Michelle Motel in Altona was built by an engineer "who put a gut under the motel. Then Public Works came in and closed it off."
Howard recalled a time when there was a pond near the Michelle Motel easily 6 feet deep "where we would swim" as youngsters. "It's not there now," he added.
A resident of upper Contant said a gut behind her property once carried rainfall down by the airport. But then the owner of the property above her "decided to fill in the gut to have more land for development."
The ensuing discussion started with someone saying "the government should see that the man opens up the gut" but led into references to "the maze of permits" and "lack of enforcement" of regulations. "The larger issue," Potter interjected, "is how do we make people understand that you can't just keep doing this stuff?"
Road engineering was another topic Howard touched upon. "Small culverts only good for dry day," he commented. As opposed to building such culverts on the "down" side of hilly roads, he said, the more effective way to control waterflow is to force it back to the mountain side of the road and use a "sink and bridge" technique to channel it downward gradually.
Among the modern-day engineering projects that brought derisive comments were the "bridge to nowhere" in Nadir, the intersection at Fort Mylner/Tutu Park Mall, and the new drainage system along Harwood Highway "linking culverts with concrete."
Gjessing said the policy of late has been to "make wider and wider guts and, at the bottom, put the water into the ocean as fast as you can." Instead, she said "why not rejuvenate" the old systems of diverting water into little ponds?
Howard shared her sentiments: "Today we have heavy equipment and planning in offices with air-conditioning, and we're not getting what we used to do with a pick."
Potter said toward the end of the meeting that he had "thought we would be talking more about engineering issues." He said the steering committee and research associates had not "addressed activating and using systems that were built by people who had to live with those situations."
A second meeting was held on St. John Thursday night. The third will take place on St. Croix Friday from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Educational Department Curriculum Center.

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