Rapid City Still Recovering From Damaging May Flood

By SAMUEL BLACKSTONE, Rapid City Journal | July 30, 2018

On May 18, Om Siwakoti was in his second story apartment above the Lazy U Motel when the rain started cascading down in sheets. Minutes later, he was waist deep in rushing water trying to pry open a latch so the backed up waters could drain into a channel behind his motel and cease seeping through the air conditioning units and into the rooms lining the motel’s southern side.

Across the South Dakota town, Vicki Koebernick and Monte Rohrbach were scrambling about their home as the basement and garage flooded and 27 inches of water sloshed over their backyard lawn. From the back door, they watched as the rising waters stopped half an inch short of overwhelming their deck and pouring through their back door.

A few blocks southeast, JoAnn Wilkins was peering through her back screen door as rain waters overtopped the open drainage channel behind her backyard and crawled toward her home.

“It was like a raging river,” she recalled.

Since the short-lived deluge’s end, Siwakoti, Wilkins, Koebernick and Rohrbach have assessed the damage to their properties. For Koebernick and Rohrbach, the damage is close to $100,000 – the county assessment of property and home is $178,200. Newfound cracks in their foundation – presumably due to pressure from the oversaturated ground – are their biggest concern.

For Siwakoti, the damage to 11 of his motel rooms will cost around $30,000 without taking into account the lost revenue from the weeklong closure of the rooms and forced relocation of his tenants.

Wilkins was left relatively unscathed, though the flood waters entered her home for the first time since she bought the home in 1973, forcing her to replace the padding beneath her one-year-old carpeting. But her neighbor, Chelsea Van Wyk, wasn’t as fortunate. She estimates that new flooring and fencing will cost between $5,000 and $6,000.

Koebernick and Rohrbach have flood insurance, though they have yet to hear how much of their losses will be covered. Van Wyk, within the 100-year flood plain and with a federally backed mortgage, has flood insurance, too. But the storm and subsequent surface water flooding were never deemed a flood, meaning she will likely be on her own in covering the losses. Atop Mount Rushmore Road and far from any flood plain – and in an area that would seem safe despite a major flood event – Siwakoti has no coverage.

“It’s a lot of money,” he told the Rapid City Journal . “I don’t know what to do. When there is rain, I never sleep.”

At around 6:15 p.m. on May 18, rain droplets began to descend on Rapid City. In less than an hour the storm had continued eastward, leaving behind a car in a detention pond, another in a drainage channel, and inches of water in countless basements and homes. The National Weather Service’s official rainfall count was 1.79 inches, but in the Robbinsdale area and the city’s Meade Hawthorne Drainage Basin – the city has 21 separate drainage basins – residential rain gauges tallied up to 4.5 inches.

The city was quick to categorize the storm as a 100-year flood rain event – a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year – citing a report from Sperlich Consulting, a Rapid City-based engineering firm that designed the new Robbinsdale Park detention cell where a car ended up following the storm.

But that distinction was only for the Meade Hawthorne Drainage Basin where the properties of Siwakoti, Wilkins, Koebernick and Rohrbach reside. Other areas of the city received much less rain. Nonetheless, phones were ringing off the hook for local restoration businesses like ServPro over the next few days.

“We were to the point where we were almost running out of equipment,” said Brian Munsell, a marketing manager at ServPro in Rapid City.

Within a 24-hour period following the storm, ServPro received more than 20 calls for service. Sump pump failures were common, Munsell said, and properties in the Gap and Robbinsdale area were especially hit hard. Basement flooding and leaks from roofs were common. The calls, Munsell said, have yet to really subside in what has been an unusually wet year for the area.

Through July 9, 17.93 inches of rain have fallen on downtown Rapid City. In an average year – calculated based on rainfall figures from 1981 to 2010 – the area experiences 19.79 inches annually.

“This year is kind of an anomaly,” Munsell said of the calls for service.

Though Wilkins had never experienced flooding in her home since she and her late husband bought the 233 East Flormannn St. house in 1973, flooding to her yard and the general area is not novel. An open, concrete drainage channel snakes through the development before making an abrupt, 90-degree turn just west of Wilkins’ and Van Wyk’s homes. It then continues east behind their backyards before disappearing into an underground culvert at Elm Avenue. During heavy storms, the channel oftentimes overflows, especially at the turn, where the water’s force slams into the channel wall and becomes backed up.

“Pretty much any time there’s a substantial rainfall, there’s some sort of flooding,” said Van Wyck in an interview. “Whether it gets into the homes or not, it’s at least in the yards.”

Dick Towne, who from 2008 to 2017 lived at 230 East Meade St. – outside the floodplain, directly across the channel from Van Wyk’s home and just south of the 90-degree turn – before selling the home to his son, Nick, said his yard and garage was flooded about every two years, costing him thousands of dollars in landscaping and cleanup.

Eventually, Towne went to the city to voice his complaints and ask for some type of mitigation from the persistent overflowing of the channel. A 2014 Sperlich Consulting study was one result, which recommended constructing 3-foot-tall berms and interlocking retaining walls on either side of the channel to contain the water. Those improvements, the study notes, would only prevent flooding for a two-year storm event.

“It will be reiterated that the proposed channel improvements do not provide enough capacity to contain the 10-year and 100-year storm events,” the study reads with italicized, underlined emphasis.

In practice, though, the city only installed retaining walls on the southeast side of the channel, protecting Towne’s property but essentially diverting the water onto Van Wyck and Wilkins’ properties. Towne readily admits that the fix caused Van Wyck and Wilkins’ misery, calling the walls a “band-aid” fix for his property – and one that didn’t protect the home during the May 18 storm, when the yard and garage again flooded – that exacerbated the issue for his neighbors.

“The city knew about the concerns,” Towne said. “The city drafted a plan to fix it. They started the plan. It went so far and then it stopped for lack of money.”

Towne noted that the city knows the true fix: burying the open channel beneath the road. But, at an estimated cost of $10 to $11 million, that project seems unlikely to begin anytime soon, says city Public Works Director Dale Tech.

“We’re financially constrained,” Tech said in an interview. “We have more needs than we have funding.”

On July 10, Tech gave a presentation on the history of drainage development in Rapid City to the city’s Public Works Committee. In essence, Tech said, the city and its developers’ drainage plans were piecemeal, inadequate and shortsighted. Maintenance of the city’s existing drainage infrastructure also lagged far behind the needs, creating the current situation.

“When it (the Meade Hawthorne Drainage Basin) was developed, the standard for drainage at the time was really nonexistent,” Tech said. “Storm flows were expected to run down streets or wherever and that’s the way that area was developed. Over the last … forever, there’s never been anybody maintaining any of the existing drainages that we have in this town.”

Tech said drainage issues exist throughout the city, noting that the city is currently prioritizing the Gap near West Boulevard and 11th and 12th streets, an area city engineer Mary Bosworth called a “dangerous situation” in the same interview. The city is also looking at Fairlane Avenue, which experienced heavy flooding on May 18, washing one car into the Robbinsdale detention pond and moving other cars down the street. Installing a storm sewer beneath the road is planned, with the project going to bid at the end of the year.

“And that’s more of that money,” Tech said, referencing the Fairlane project and the city’s drainage assessment fee, which was instituted in 2013 and collected its first fees in 2015 following a citizen task force that Towne served on alongside former city Public Works Director Terry Wolterstorff. The fee collects about $2.4 million each year for the city’s stormwater drainage utility fund, of which $1 million goes to maintenance, leaving just $1.4 million for new projects.

“$1.4 million doesn’t get you much,” Tech said.

The Robbinsdale detention cell – which can hold three times the amount of water as the previous cell, or the equivalent of a football field topped with 25 feet of water, according to a Sperlich Consulting engineer – cost about $1.2 million but was a bargain as it was on undeveloped land and required no relocation of utilities or underground street work, Tech said. Putting the open channel underground would be much more costly.

“You have to remove all the existing infrastructure and replace it all,” he said. “It’s not just as simple as burying a culvert underground. You’re completely obliterating the entire street. They want something done and that’s completely understandable. The thing about putting a pipe underground is there’s going to be a storm that exceeds the capacity of whatever you put in the ground, so it’s going to cause surface flooding no matter what.”

Tech noted one startling finding in his presentation: There are only about 200 flood insurance policies in Rapid City. Around 35 percent of those are outside the flood plain, Tech added.

His advice: no matter your location, if your property is at risk of flooding, get flood insurance.

“We encourage folks, if you think you have any risk of flooding on your property, you should have flood insurance,” Tech said. He also said property owners need to take responsibility for their yards and consider home drainage improvement projects like, say, French drains, extended storm gutters, or berms to divert water from their property.

“You’ve got to do what you need to do to protect your own property,” he said.

Farmers Insurance agent Randy Horsley scoffs at such advice and has another theory for what’s causing flooding issues in the Robbinsdale area and Meade Hawthorne drainage basin.

“This isn’t a flood that was caused by nature,” Horsley said in a Journal interview. “This is something that was manmade.”

Horsley, along with Towne and Van Wyck, believe the recently completed Mount Rushmore Road project, which lies within the Meade Hawthorne drainage basin, compounded the flooding issues. Towne said he went to the city with concerns about how the road project would affect homeowners downstream early in its construction phase. The city cast him aside.

“They said `Oh, it won’t affect you.’ Well, it did, because this is the worst event now that we’ve had,” Towne said. “Every square inch of pavement allows moisture to runoff faster.”

Horsley, who wrote the Lazy U Motel policy last year, noted that in the previous 15 to 20 years, the Lazy U Motel never had the flooding issues it had on May 18. Former Lazy U Motel owner Verlyn Bourne confirmed that in a Journal interview.

“We never had the problem they had this year,” Bourne, who sold the motel to Siwakoti on Aug. 15, 2017, said. “This is a brand new thing.”

When told of Tech’s comment that city infrastructure isn’t designed to handle such unpredictable rain events, Horsley said that was unacceptable.

“If your infrastructure can’t handle two to three inches of rain coming down in an hour’s period, what is it supposed to handle?” he asked. “That’s unacceptable to me for a new project. You did this project last year and you’re telling me that your infrastructure is already being defeated the first year it was ever even put together?”

He said expecting Rapid Citians to buy flood insurance when they’re outside the flood plain, like the Lazy U Motel, is unrealistic.

“We were told the first time this was brought up, the board mentioned that `Well, they should have had a flood policy,’ he said. “That’s a ridiculous thing to say coming from an insurance agent.”

Aside from the cost of flood insurance and the potential that insurance may not cover the damage if a flood isn’t declared, telling citizens that they may need to carry insurance because of a road project’s effects begs for litigation, Horsley said.

“If the city actually deliberately tried to tell all the constituents that you need to get a flood policy because our mess-up is probably going to cause you problems, good luck not getting sued by every insurance company that handles South Dakota,” he said. “That’s not going to fly.”

Horsley said he has three clients who experienced flooding damage from the May storm and has heard of nearly a dozen other property owners who experienced damages.

“The individual people I’ve talked to, all they want is it paid for because insurance isn’t,” he said.

Typical clauses within homeowners and flood insurance policies exclude coverage for damages caused by water from a backed up sewer, drain or sump pump, damages from underground water pressing, flowing or seeping into foundations and basements, and damages from flood, surface water, waves, tides, tidal waves or the overflow of a body of water. Some of those situations can ultimately be covered by insurance if a policyholder wants to pay extra for that coverage, Horsley said.

Mike Carlson, Rapid City engineer for the South Dakota Department of Transportation, said the prospect of being sued by citizens or insurance agencies is nothing new to the state, which handled the design and construction of the Mount Rushmore Road project. The state has deep pockets and individuals/companies sometimes try to get a small slice.

“Anything that we did, did not cause any significant increase in runoff. I don’t see that we impacted anything at all,” he said.

The project moved some sidewalks and parking lots and widened the road slightly, Carlson admitted but the area was already impervious to precipitation. He cited the city’s statement and Sperlich Consulting’s report calling the storm a 100-year event.

“There are no city streets that can handle an event of that size,” he said.

The state designs roads and drainage infrastructure for 25-year storm events, but Rapid City requires designs to handle 100-year storm events. So, when the state undertakes a project in Rapid City, the city picks up the tab for the cost of the additional design and infrastructure work.

“We can only protect them (citizens) so far and if you have a huge event, our system cannot handle it, and there’s nothing that we can do,” he said. “As long as we do what’s nationally accepted, there is no liability. But that doesn’t mean they still won’t sue us.”

Van Wyck is currently investigating the possibility of suing the city or state for the damages to her property. Koebernick and Nick Towne could also potentially be plaintiffs in the case. Wilkins, for now, seems uninterested in joining. Her husband worked for the city for 40 years and she’s wary of biting the hand that helped feed her family and buy her home.

“It was a good living, so why do we want to do anything against the city and what would you get anyways besides nothing but years of heartache?” Wilkins said this week from her kitchen. “I thought ‘C’mon, just put a few cement things up there,” she added, referencing the retaining walls.

One of Horsley’s clients on Clark Street who experienced flood damage recently had his renter’s insurance claim paid because a neighbor’s drain clogged during the storm, causing water to back up and enter his apartment. With a paid claim, Farmers now has to decide whether it will subrogate – suing a third party responsible for the loss that Farmers experienced from the paid claim – and if so, whether the city, state or some other entity is responsible. For now, Horsley is in wait-and-see mode.

As for the city, at the conclusion of Tech’s July 10 presentation, he noted that a yearlong study of the Meade Hawthorne Drainage Basin was scheduled and funded for 2019, with a request for proposals from potential firms expected this fall. The intention of the study, estimated to cost $110,000, is to evaluate the drainage basin design plans, storm sewer designs and identify future drainage projects to prevent flooding to the area.

But even with the study, any effective, long-term remediation seems distant.

“The funding level we have, it’s going to take many, many decades to make huge differences in town,” Tech conceded at the end of his presentation.

Towne, Van Wyck and Wilkins are hopeful that in the meantime, the city may complete small, short-term mitigation projects like diverting water overflowing the channel’s 90-degree turn onto Michigan Avenue and East Meade Street, where a double-wide box culvert was installed beneath the road in 2007.

Following the storm, Wilkins said she sat in her living room watching the local news when Tech appeared on the screen. In an interview, he noted that the city’s drainage issues extended throughout town and many were of a higher priority than the problems she, Van Wyck, Towne and others in their area had experienced.

“I wonder what’s more important than to save a couple houses,” she said. “I would just like them to try something. I like living here and I don’t want to move. Can’t afford to.”

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