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Brandywine Flood Study leaders scramble to prepare watershed for the next ‘Ida’

Remnants of Hurricane Ida devastated the region in 2021 and caused more than $100 million in damage to public infrastructure.
Delaware Public Media
Remnants of Hurricane Ida devastated the region in 2021 and caused more than $100 million in damage to public infrastructure.

Earlier this year, The Brandywine Conservancy announced it would conduct a flood survey to examine flooding along the Brandywine River and how to protect surrounding communities.

The study comes two years after flooding caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ida resulted in more than $100 million in damage to public infrastructure along the Brandywine and displaced some Wilmington residents.

Contributor Jon Hurdle reports on the study’s progress this week and what solutions it may provide.

Contributor Jon Hurdle reports on the Brandywine Conservancy flood survey's progress

From the 11th Street Bridge over the Brandywine Creek in Northeast Wilmington, the view to the east is of a city-owned dump and recycling depot, bordered by industrial buildings on one side and the reed-fringed creek on the other.

The 40-acre site is where advocates for better flood control want to build a public park where residents could walk, fish or launch kayaks, while waters from future floods would be absorbed, helping to protect the community from the next big storm.

The plan is one that’s being considered by the Brandywine Flood Study, a watershed-wide program designed to prevent a repetition of the record flooding that devastated Northeast Wilmington and other areas of the Brandywine watershed when Hurricane Ida hit in September 2021.

More than two years after the storm, stakeholders including city officials, environmentalists, academics and community groups are gathering information on which areas of the watershed are the most vulnerable to flooding, and preparing recommendations on how those areas might be protected as big storms get more frequent and more violent amid the changing climate.

The study, announced in August this year, is scheduled to be finalized in the summer of 2024, when it will recommend flood-control measures for the most vulnerable areas of the watershed, most of which is in Pennsylvania, but which has its southern end at Wilmington.

“Because of the different flood studies, a lot of people are collaborating but they’re not including the essential part which is the community."
Zoe Yearwood, community activist with Green Building United

It will propose measures to protect upstream Pennsylvania towns including Downingtown and Coatesville, both of which were hit hard by Ida, as well as low-lying areas such as Wilmington near the point where the creek empties into the Delaware River.

In Wilmington, advocates worry that the views of environmental-justice communities like the Northeast section are not being taken into account.

“We aim to reach the community, and empower their voices to speak on what’s being done there,” said Zoe Yearwood, a community activist working with Green Building United, an environmental nonprofit that is trying to build public knowledge of and support for flood-control measures in that section of the city. “Because of the different flood studies, a lot of people are collaborating but they’re not including the essential part which is the community,” she said.

Green Building United was awarded a grant of about $100,000 from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation to engage the community in the planning process for flood resiliency. The grant is also funding research by the University of Delaware’s Water Resources Center into using “living shorelines” – coastal or riverine barriers made of natural materials such as plants, sand and rock -- to build up the creek bank by the 11th Street Bridge.

“We’re trying to make sure that the community is involved in whatever choices are made for the area that flooded,” said Karen Igou of Green Building United. “The people want a park where they can have access to the river.”

While local advocates call for specific projects to protect communities from the worsening effects of climate change, they are part of a global movement that recognizes the dangers of bigger storms, heat waves, sea-level rise and wildfires, and is seeking to adapt to them while cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, said Dr. Jerry Kauffman, director of UD’s Water Resources Center.

“This is a local issue in a small city. And there’s a big meeting going on in Dubai, and what they are talking about is exactly what the neighbors are talking about,” Kauffman said, referring to COP28, this year’s global climate talks. “I thought I knew a lot about the climate but when Ida hit, this was a flood that we thought would happen in 2050 but it hit now. So it’s a big wakeup call. This is a climate emergency.”

Ida dumped more than five inches of rain on Newark in a storm normally expected to occur once every 10 years, and three and a half inches at Wilmington. The Brandywine Creek at Wilmington saw a peak flood rate of 33,700 cubic feet a second (cfs) on Sept. 2, 2021, breaking the previous record of 29,000 cfs during Hurricane Agnes in 1972.

The amount of rainfall made Ida into a storm that would normally be expected only once in every 200 years, and that should be a spur to urgent flood-protection measures, Kauffman said, standing next to the creek that was swollen again by more than two inches of rain that drenched Delaware on Dec. 10.

Flood damage from Hurricane Ida at Hagley Museum.
Delaware Public Media
Flood damage from Hurricane Ida at Hagley Museum.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address a long-underserved area. Hydraulically, we have the solutions. If we’re here a year from now, and nothing’s done, it would be a real shame,” he said.

Across the watershed, leaders of the Brandywine Flood Study are seeking public input to make sure eventual adaptation projects reflect local needs, said Grant DeCosta, Community Services Director of the Brandywine Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit that is helping to lead the study project.

The first public meeting for the Study was held in Downingtown, Pa. on Dec. 14, and leaders are continuing to meet with municipal public works officials to gather their recommendations on what’s needed, DeCosta said.

He called the initiative a “results-oriented effort” that would go beyond just identifying which areas are most exposed to flooding. But he said it’s too early to predict when new flood-control measures might be installed. “Some things might happen right away; some might depend on permitting or funding,” he said.

Flood-control measures might include seeking easements to prevent development on private land – which would create impervious surface that adds to stormwater runoff and worsen flooding. In those cases, any agreement to an easement would be up to the owner but there could be financial incentives to do so, DeCosta said.

“If there are rights such as development that would be extinguished by the easement, then there could be fiscal compensation to the landowner,” he said.

Asked whether the recommendations will include nature-based measures such as living shorelines or structural solutions such as flood walls, DeCosta said they are likely to include both.

“It’s going to require an all-of-the-above recommendation,” he said. “The problem is so extensive, not only in how severe our flooding is and is projected to be, but we don’t have one solution that is going to do all of this. Green infrastructure and more land preservation: those are absolutely going to be crucial to getting flood heights down to a safe level. And there will be some structural solutions.”

Officials at the City of Wilmington, another partner in the Brandywine Flood Study, could not be reached for comment. The City’s earlier flood-control work has included recommendations for improvements on the 7th Street peninsula at the confluence of the Brandywine Creek and Christina River.

Dr. Jerry Kauffman, director of UD’s Water Resources Center
University of Delaware
Dr. Jerry Kauffman, director of UD’s Water Resources Center

In Northeast Wilmington, where Ida’s waters topped parked cars in some places, Jaehn Dennis runs a community radio station, WYVT, that allows him to pick up on local attitudes to the flood-control measures now being considered for the community.

In the poor, Black community that has long been exposed to environmental hazards including a nearby landfill, a waste water treatment plant and a chemical manufacturer, people are more focused on day-to-day survival than on plans for flood control, so it’s hard to get them engaged in the issue, Dennis said.

But he argued that the area would withstand future flooding better than it did during Ida if the City of Wilmington unblocked sewer openings to allow water to drain away, as he said it failed to do during Ida. And he argued for building the proposed public park next to the 11th Street Bridge, and lining the creek bank there with living shorelines, as planned by Kauffman and his UD team.

“If the park is developed and the banks are built up, it would be better to help route the water,” he said. “It would help some of the water to not go over the banks.”

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Jon has been reporting on environmental and other topics for Delaware Public Media since 2011. Stories range from sea-level rise and commercial composting to the rebuilding program at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and the University of Delaware’s aborted data center plan.