U.S. Army Corps of Engineers representatives joined more than 150 experts to discuss flooding in our nation’s capital at Gallaudet University, Sept. 8, 2016, marking the first flood summit of its kind in Washington.
“We live in a flood-prone area, and we better face it,” said Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton during opening remarks. “You wouldn’t know it because there’s been too little discussion.”
The congresswoman set the tone for the summit, impressing upon attendees that the capital should be considered front and center nationally for issues on climate change and flood risk.
According to Jason Elliott, National Weather Service (NWS), Baltimore/Washington, senior service hydrologist and summit panelist, Washington is a three-way street for flooding. Not only is it located next to two major rivers that can flood, the Potomac and Anacostia, it is susceptible to coastal storm surge and interior flooding when storm drains are overwhelmed.
The summit occurred the week of the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Fran that engulfed Washington in 1996. While Washington has experienced several large floods since, the Potomac River is due for a major one, said Elliott.
And since that time, Washington has only grown, putting more people and businesses at risk when the next flood comes.
“We have more people and development to accommodate for in the future when thinking about flood-risk-management measures,” said Tanya Stern, District of Columbia, Office of Planning, Planning, Engagement and Design deputy director. Stern stated that between 2000 and 2015, Washington added 100,000 people.
“Flood protection for D.C. equals protecting our economy, which is one of the strongest in the nation,” said Brian Kenner, District of Columbia, Planning and Economic Development deputy mayor. “We have to guard the economy we’ve worked so hard to generate.”
“We must educate, mitigate and remember the past to prepare for the future,” said Elliott.
The 2016 Flood Summit was organized by the DC Silver Jackets, an interagency team that leverages resources to identify and implement comprehensive, resilient, and sustainable solutions to reduce flood risks around Washington. The Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) is the lead agency for Washington, while the Corps, Baltimore District, and National Park Service (NPS) jointly lead the federal agencies.
Panel discussions during the summit included an overview of flood-risk-management programs, policies and initiatives across all levels of governance; resilience and climate-adaptation challenges and opportunities; structural and non-structural solutions agencies are currently taking to manage flood risks; and the path forward.
The summit brought together an array of regional, federal, state, local, and District agencies, and public and private partners. The event was moderated by Jason Samenow, Washington Post weather editor. Bart de Jong, The Royal Netherlands Embassy Infrastructure and Environment counselor, acted as the keynote speaker and discussed how the Dutch are turning flood-risk challenges into opportunities. Teri Janine Quinn, Bloomingdale Civic Association president and an Advisory Neighborhood Commission 5E chair, recounted personal tales of flooding and resiliency, as part of the Flood Stories session. Participating agencies included DOEE, NPS, Government of the District of Columbia, the Corps, University of Maryland, Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Capital Planning Commission, C40 Cities, New Orleans and New York City representatives, and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority.
“Floods know no jurisdictional boundaries,” said Kenner. “That’s why these partnerships are so important.”
Joe Reed, Corps, Baltimore District, Levee Safety program manager, discussed the ways the Corps is reducing flood risks in Washington, including flood-fighting training for municipalities; updating a flood emergency manual that acts as a guidebook for who’s responsible and for what during a disaster; and the Anacostia and Potomac Park flood-risk-management systems.
“The risks of the Potomac Park Levee System far outweigh all other dam and levee risks in all of the National Parks,” said Mark Baker, NPS, Dam and Levee Safety officer, who manages 400 flood-risk-management systems across NPS.
Major improvements were made by the Corps to the flood-risk-management system in fall 2014, after a sophisticated, removable post and panel closure structure replaced the previous sandbagging procedure to close off 17th Street in case of a flood.
Stacey Underwood, Corps, Baltimore District, Silver Jackets Program coordinator, discussed flood-risk-management studies the Corps and Silver Jackets are conducting, as well as a new online, interactive maps that show storm-based flood potential along the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.
“The main priorities for the DC Silver Jackets in the coming years are making more improvements to the Potomac Park Flood Risk Management System, increasing community engagement, expanding international partnerships and addressing interior-flooding issues,” said Phetmano Phannavong, DOEE District of Columbia floodplain manager and DC Silver Jackets co-leader.
The summit ended with a summary of the key takeaways, as well as a call to action, led by Sandra Knight, University of Maryland Center of Disaster Resilience coordinator. Knight reiterated the importance of partnerships; balancing structural and nature-based solutions for flood-risk management; incorporating social justice and vulnerable populations when making flood-risk decisions; educating the public and sharing in the responsibility of flood risk; and rethinking basic assumptions when it comes to flooding.
“It’s great seeing District and federal partners working so closely together, especially with the Silver Jackets,” said Judy Feldman, National Mall Coalition chair and president. “The future looks really good for D.C.”
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