Protect Yourself from Flooding
HUNTSVILLE’S FLOOD HAZARD
There are 29 square miles and over 6,000 developed properties in the base or 100-year floodplain of the City. These numbers mean that 17% of the City’s land area and 6.7% of the City’s developed property are subject to overbank flooding.
Properties in these areas can be hit very quickly − the smaller streams are subject to flash flooding. In the extraordinary June 1999 flood on Aldridge Creek approximately 6 inches of rain fell in two hours causing the creek at Mountain Gap Road to rise 8 feet in only ½ hour. This type of flooding creates a safety hazard since people can be caught unaware, sometimes in the middle of the night. One person was killed in the June 1999 flood.
While the 1999 flood did not affect all the City’s streams, it did cause considerable property damage where it did occur. A common type of damage inflicted in Huntsville floods is caused by soaking. When soaked, wood will swell and, if dried too quickly, will crack, split or warp. Gypsum wallboard will fall apart if it is bumped before it dries out.
The longer these materials are wet, the more moisture, sediment and pollutants they will absorb. Soaking can cause extensive damage to household goods. Wooden furniture may become so badly warped that it cannot be used. Other furnishings such as upholstery, carpeting, mattresses, and books usually are not worth drying out and restoring. Electrical appliances and gasoline engines will not work safely until they are professionally dried and cleaned.
Find out if your property is in the mapped floodplain. Call the City’s Engineering Department at (256) 427-5300.
CITY FLOOD PROTECTION ACTIVITIES
The City of Huntsville is implementing a variety of flood protection activities. These include:
- Completion of a comprehensive flood mitigation plan that was adopted by the City Council on September 27, 2001.
- Mapping and modeling all floodplains used for preparation of watershed master plans to reduce flooding.
- Strengthening the regulatory standards for new construction to minimize its exposure to flood damage and its impact on runoff onto other properties.
- Acquiring and clearing high hazard areas and converting the land from damage-prone buildings to public open space and greenways.
- Continue conducting a regular inspection and cleaning program for ditches and channels within constraints of environmental permitting. Check with us if you have any drainage questions.
- Developing a pilot flood emergency response plan.
- Providing a host of materials, references and advice on flood protection for homes and businesses. Several City floodplains are being converted to public open space as part of watershed master plans.
PROTECTING YOURSELF FROM FLOODING
If you have experienced water problems in the past, you shouldn’t wait for the problem to go away. Here are some things you can do:
- Read about floodproofing and get more information from the Library on the measures appropriate for your building.
- Check out flood insurance coverage.
- Read about the City’s construction and dumping regulations. Follow these rules and report construction violations to the Inspection Department: (256) 427-5331 and dumping violations to Crime Stoppers: (256) 532-7463.
Floodproofing a house means altering it so floodwaters will not cause damage. Different floodproofing techniques are appropriate for different types of buildings. Use the following as a guideline:
- If you have a basement, split level, or other floor below ground level, you are faced with surface flooding, sewer backup and groundwater leakage. There are lots of ways to protect your basement or lower floor from seepage and sewer backup, but be very careful about waterproofing basement walls − the pressure of surface flooding can break them.
- If your house is on a slab foundation, investigate a low floodwall, berm or “dry floodproofing” (i.e., making the walls watertight and closing all the openings when a flood comes).
- If your house is on a crawlspace, a low floodwall, berm or “wet floodproofing” will work. “Wet floodproofing” means moving all items subject to damage out of harm’s way so water can flow into the crawlspace and not cause any problems. Where floodwaters are deep enough to go over the first floor, elevating the building can be cost-effective protection measures.
- An excellent source for more information is Homeowner’s Guide to Retrofitting: Six Ways to protect Your House from Flooding (FEMA Publication 312). For other ideas see FEMA’s website for suggestions.
No matter what kind of building you have, some last minute emergency measures can always help. For example, you could move valuable items (photos, antiques, and other “irreplaceables,” etc.) or items that are most damaged by floodwaters (upholstered furniture, stuffed toys, mattresses, foam rubber, etc.) up to a higher level. You can place sandbags or plastic sheeting in front of doorways and other low entry points.
Whatever emergency protection measures you use, it is always best to have a plan written in advance to make sure you don’t forget anything after you hear the flood warning. Keep in mind the flood safety hints at the end of this paper. The Red Cross has some additional suggestions. Dry floodproofing and barriers can protect against shallow flooding, but all openings must be addressed.
Flood insurance is highly recommended. Remember, even if the last storm or flood missed you or you have done something to protect your home from water, the next flood could be worse. Typically, homeowners insurance policies do not cover property for flood damage.
The City of Huntsville participates in the National Flood Insurance Program. Local insurance agents can sell a flood insurance policy under rules and rates set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Any agent can sell a policy and all agents must charge the same rates.
Any house can be covered by a flood insurance policy. Detached garages and accessory buildings are covered under the policy for the lot’s main building. Separate coverage can be obtained for the building’s structure and for its contents (except for money, valuable papers, and the like). The structure generally includes everything that stays with a house when it is sold, including the furnace, cabinets, built-in appliances, and wall-to-wall carpeting.
There is no coverage for things outside the house, like the driveway and landscaping. Renters can buy contents coverage, even if the owner does not buy structural coverage on the building.
Some people have purchased flood insurance because it was required by the bank when they got a mortgage or home improvement loan. Usually these policies just cover the building’s structure and not the contents. During the kind of flooding that happens in Huntsville, there is usually as much damage to the furniture and contents as there is to the structure.
The city of Huntsville participates in the Community Ratings System. Currently, the city is rated a class 8 community, so citizens in the floodplain receive a 10% rate reduction on their flood insurance.
For more information on flood insurance, see FEMA’s website on flood insurance.
Note for insurance agents: The Engineering Division has copies of FEMA Elevation Certificates on buildings built in the floodplain during the last 10 years. To see if an elevation certificate is available for a particular property, contact us at (256) 427-5300.
Don’t wait for the next flood to buy insurance protection. There is a 30-day waiting period before National Flood Insurance coverage takes effect. Contact your insurance agent for more information on rates and coverage.
NATURAL AND BENEFICIAL FLOODPLAIN FUNCTIONS
Floodplains should be seen in their natural context. They are more than just hazardous locations for human development. They provide habitat for flora and fauna, groundwater recharge, and recreational and aesthetic opportunities. Several City parks front on our streams, providing a more scenic setting than other locations provide.
Open and natural areas absorb much more rain and floodwater than urbanized areas, reducing flood flows on downstream properties. Wetlands reduce flood velocities and erosion. Their plants filter stormwater runoff, making it cleaner for those downstream. These floodprone areas are used by a variety of wildlife and provide habitat for species that cannot live or breed anywhere else.
There are many areas in Huntsville that have been identified as wetlands, but it is estimated that the City has lost over 70% of its wetlands since 1947.
It is important that we preserve such natural areas and wetlands. While some development is allowed, the City and state and Federal agencies make sure that the natural benefits of any filled wetlands are compensated by creation of additional or improved wetland habitats nearby.
Another concern is water quality. The storm drain system carries untreated stormwater runoff directly to our streams. Pouring wastes into storm drains directly impacts our environment. Oil, anti-freeze, paint, fertilizer and pesticides pollute the water, destroy plants, and endanger wildlife. For example, one quart of oil can contaminate 250,000 gallons of water. The oil from one motor oil change can create an eight acre oil slick. Therefore, you should do your part to help keep our streams and storm drains free of pollutants.
FLOOD PROTECTION REGULATIONS
Every lot in Huntsville was originally designed so water would flow away from the building and along property lines to the street, storm sewer, or ditch. Fences, railroad ties, landscaping and regrading block this flow. So do construction projects in the ditches or the floodplain. All development in the floodplain requires a local Floodplain Development Permit. Floodplain Development Permits are available at the Engineering Division, 320 Fountain Circle, Huntsville, AL 35801. If you see development occurring in the floodplain without a permit, please contact (256) 427-5300 immediately.
- Every piece of trash can contribute to flooding. Even grass clippings and branches can accumulate and plug channels. If your property is next to the river or a storage basin, please do your part and keep the banks clear of brush and debris.
- DO NOT DUMP OR THROW ANYTHING INTO THE RIVER OR BASINS. Dumping in a stream or storage basin is a violation of City Code.
- Always check with the Engineering Division before you build on, fill, alter, or regrade your property. A permit is needed to ensure that such projects do not cause problems on other properties.
- If you see dumping or debris in the river or basins, filling or construction near property lot lines, or filling or construction in the floodplain without a permit sign posted, contact the Engineering Division at (256) 427-5300. The debris or project may cause flooding on your property.
New buildings in the floodplain must be protected from flood damage. Our codes require that new residential buildings must be elevated one foot above the base flood level. The city uses the 2003 Version of the International Building Code.
The ordinance also requires that all substantial improvements to a building be treated as a new building. A substantial improvement occurs when the value of an addition, alteration, repair or reconstruction project exceeds 50% of the value of the existing building. In the case of an addition, only the addition must be protected. In the case of an improvement to the original building, the entire building must be protected.
For example, if a house in the floodplain is flooded, has a fire, is hit by a tornado, or is otherwise damaged so that the cost of repairs is more than 50% of the value of the building before the damage, then the house must be elevated above the base flood level.
These regulations are designed to protect you and your neighbors. By keeping the drainage system clear and getting the proper permits before you build, we can prevent flooding and other drainage problems.
Do not walk through flowing water. Drowning is the number one cause of flood deaths. Currents can be deceptive; six inches of moving water can knock you off your feet. Use a pole or stick to ensure that the ground is still there before you go through an area where the water is not flowing.
Do not drive through a flooded area. More people drown in their cars than anywhere else. Don’t drive around road barriers; the road or bridge may be washed out. More people drown in their cars than anywhere else. Don’t drive around road barriers; the road or bridge may be washed out.
Stay away from power lines and electrical wires. The number two flood killer after drowning is electrocution. Electrical current can travel through water. Report downed power lines to Huntsville Utilities: (256) 535-1200.
Look before you step. After a flood, the ground and floors are covered with debris including broken bottles and nails. Floors and stairs that have been covered with mud can be very slippery.
Be alert for gas leaks. Use a flashlight to inspect for damage. Don’t smoke or use candles, lanterns, or open flames unless you know the gas has been turned off and the area has been ventilated. If you have questions on gas, call Huntsville Utilities at (256) 535-1200.
Carbon monoxide exhaust kills. Use a generator or other gasoline-powered machine outdoors. The same goes for camping stoves. Charcoal fumes are especially deadly— cook with charcoal outdoors.
Clean everything that got wet. Flood waters have picked up sewage and chemicals from roads, farms, factories, and storage buildings. Spoiled food, flooded cosmetics, and medicine can be health hazards. When in doubt, throw them out.
Take good care of yourself. Recovering from a flood is a big job. It is tough on both the body and the spirit and the effects a disaster has on you and your family may last a long time. Keep your eyes open for signs of anxiety, stress, and fatigue in you and your family.
For more information on the flood hazard, flood protection measures or construction rules, contact the City of Huntsville Engineering Division, 320 Fountain Circle, or call us at (256) 427-5300 or fax: (256) 427-5325.
FEMA ELEVATION CERTIFICATES
The Engineering Division has copies of FEMA Elevation Certificates on buildings built in the floodplain during the last 10 years. To see if an elevation certificate is available for a particular property, contact us at (256) 427-5300.