GR to pay $14M to upgrade flood walls

The Grand River floods over the river walk in downtown Grand Rapids on June 28, 2015.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The City of Grand Rapids says it has worked out a way to save residents thousands of dollars in flood insurance costs — but it’s going to cost about $14 million to do it.

After Hurricane Katrina slammed New Orleans in 2005, causing levees to break and devastating flooding in the city, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) created new flood protection requirements, requiring all cities in a potential flood zone to raise their flood walls by three feet.

Grand Rapids had just increased its flood walls by a foot, and it didn’t think an additional three feet was necessary.

“We said, ‘Wait a minute, we’ve never had a flood in our city’s current history that would exceed the current flood wall level,'” Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell said.

Flooding in Grand Rapids in April of 2013.
(Flooding in Grand Rapids in April of 2013.)

Not even in the spring of 2013, when Grand River experienced a 100-year flood that caused water to seep into some metro area homes and the basements of some businesses along the river downtown, but did not exceed the 25-foot flood walls.

The city has been fighting the FEMA rules since they were instituted. After 10 years of going back and forth, the city and FEMA came up with a compromise: The city will make the needed changes to meet the three feet of “free board” above the 100-year flood stage. For most walls, that requires only a few additional inches. Others won’t need any changes.

In some areas, flood walls will be replaced with graduated slopes to make river access easier when it is flowing normally. That’s part of a larger plan for the river in Grand Rapids.

The Grand River floods over the river walk in downtown Grand Rapids on June 28, 2015.
(The Grand River floods over the river walk in downtown Grand Rapids on June 28, 2015.)

FEMA has agreed that if the city makes those adjustments, the city will be sufficiently protected. That means residents will not be forced to buy flood insurance. Those who do will see lower rates.

“I’m very pleased with the outcome,” Heartwell said.

The deal hasn’t been finalized, but the mayor said the city would request only minor changes of FEMA.

Still, construction on flood walls and levees is expected to cost about $14 million. A $4.75 million bond is already paying for the start of the process.

Construction is slated to begin next spring and should take about a year to complete.



More on Grand Rapids’ flood risk and plans (PDF)

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