Flooding in South Park

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Monday’s torrential rains – two inches in six hours in some neighborhoods – left puddles throughout the city, but a boatload of heavy flooding in South Park. One such area at 14th and Concord (pictured), a low-lying basin in the business district, was a virtual lake, afloat with ill-advisedly parked cars, perhaps three feet deep in places, and stretching a quarter of a block.

The problem is caused when narrow drainage pipes are overrun. The neighborhood is a low-lying area (barely above sea level) along the Duwamish. The river bed once meandered across the plane. But during settlement, the Duwamish was “straightened.” When winter storms come, the waters tend to return to their original glacier-carved channels. And South Park’s alluvial soil, mostly sand and gravel, is not very absorbent. The result is that, during winter storms, a lot of water quickly builds up. Unfortunately, the outdated drainage system is over-capacity.  The 12 inch pipes originally installed to carry waste water away have not been adequate, according to Seattle Public Utilities’ Scott Stevens.

The description of what happens to some homeowners is horrendous: waste water and drainage — possibly mixed with sewage because it is a combined sewer system — explodes into kitchen sinks and washes across counters. All of this means that the people who have settled in South Park, mainly low-income with many ethnic backgrounds, suffer disproportionately in wet weather.

Sahba Mohindessi, also of SPU, says that South Park residents seldom complain about their soggy situation, perhaps because they don’t think they will be heard. In one recent incident, he said, Seattle Public Utilities had to evacuate families from an apartment complex near 14th and Concord. He said that flooding was also reported in 25 homes, but that there probably were as many as forty involved. He said, “Not everyone responds. They become resigned.”

He mentioned one older woman who said that she had been cancelled by her insurance company because of too many previous claims. Sahba’s advice for residents in her predicament is to apply for insurance through a FEMA program designed for those in high-risk flood areas.

SPU is presently making plans to install a new drainage system, one that would add additional 24 inch pipes to handle the winter rains. This fix, estimated at $3.8 million, is something that my committee, Libraries, Utilities and Center, will be considering early next year. And shepherding this fix through is a priority for me. Unfortunately, construction probably can’t get underway before the third quarter of 2014 – in other words, two more years of flooding incidents.

In the meantime, South Park businesses are still reeling from closure of the South Park Bridge, the neighborhood’s principal link to the city. The new bridge is scheduled to open the first quarter of 2014.

That begs the question: Will the bridge be only newly opened when the business district will once again be torn up for the SPU project (the pipes are, after all, located under our streets)? South Park businesses are hoping that the project will be delayed until they have “a breather” to allow for recovery after the winters of their discontent, losing nearly two-thirds of their business due to recession and isolation.

The beginning date for the project, hopefully timed to help the neighborhood as much as possible, has not yet been decided. Meanwhile, in South Park residents can be excused for thinking that, for them, it never rains but it pours.