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U.S. hands city a big bill for levee

Staff writer

It will cost about $300,000 for Marion to prove to the Federal Emergency Management Agency the levee that has protected the town against floods since 1977 belongs on the national Flood Insurance Rates Map, Marion City Council members learned Monday during a budget-planning meeting.

“FEMA now considers our levee non-existent,” City Administrator Doug Kjellin said.

Flood control levees now have to be certified and accredited by FEMA in the wake of levee failures in New Orleans, La. that swamped the city during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“We’ve spent $31,000 in 2012 and we’ve got $274,000 in 2013 just to get the levee accredited,” Kjellin said. “They won’t lift a finger to help you and they won’t pay for it. We’re going to be out about $300,000 just so FEMA can say we have a levee.”

“In other words, you have to keep it up once it’s done, rather than letting it go downhill,” Mayor Mary Olsen said.

“There are no downhill maintenance issues here. It has nothing to do with a tree or blades of grass,” Kjellin responded. “This is all engineering costs for trucks to come in here and drill holes to tell if it’s sand or clay or silt — it’s an expensive expenditure, but we have to do it.”

Without levee accreditation, the areas of town protected by the levee would be re-designated as flood plain, requiring residents and businesses to purchase flood insurance. Kjellin said the city has a window of opportunity to act before FEMA drafts its final regulations.

“They’re not changing the flood maps until they determine what ‘not having a levee’ means. As long as our flood maps don’t change, we’re legitimate,” Kjellin said.

“We’ve got to spend this in 2013 on the weird chance that if we don’t get it done FEMA might get their guidelines figured out, put us on the map based on their degraded grading system, and how long until we get back off that?” Kjellin said.

“It definitely means something to me as a lender,” council member Todd Heitschmidt said.

Wilson & Company, an Overland Park engineering firm, has already done the planning and assessment required for the first phase of the project.

It’s the second phase that is the most involved and costly, Kjellin said. Even though the levee was constructed and is maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA wants hard evidence they built it according to construction specifications.

“FEMA wants to see core samples to prove it was built like that,” Kjellin said. It will take up to 24 samples 45 feet deep to comply with the requirements.

An operating plan must be developed addressing scenarios for opening and closing the north and south levee gates, as well as when to sandbag low-gap crossings on Commercial Street to the south and the railroad grade on the north.

“We actually have a pile of sand and 10,000 sand bags that we have to keep on stock at all times,” Kjellin said.

Flood control is a regular line item in the city’s general fund budget, but Kjellin said he and the council will wait until they receive the 2013 revenue projection from the Marion County before determining the specific mechanisms for funding the certification project.

Last modified June 21, 2012

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