A century ago, Louisvillians could escape the summer heat on steamboats and whisk away to the Rose Island Amusement Park a few miles up the Ohio River.
Then the Great Flood of 1937 submerged two-thirds of the city, and inundated the amusement park with 10 feet of water. It never reopened.
Today, remnants of the park appear as spectral visages of times past: the concrete rim of a swimming pool filled with pebbles and fallen leaves, stone pillars and wrought-iron archways leading visitors on trails to nowhere in particular — all of it shrouded in forest.
“Well, in thinking about flood water you have a choice. This area we’re walking through now used to be a city,” said environmentalist and educator David Wicks while walking through the bare archways once wreathed in roses. “It would only make sense not to build in a floodplain.”
Today 29 miles of floodwalls, earthen levees and pump stations are supposed to protect Louisville from the next great flood. So what is the city doing to maintain the system that protects so much life and property?
“What we’re doing is a Band-Aid fix,” said Dane Anderson, flood protection manager with the Metropolitan Sewer District. “We’re trying to take that old vehicle and keep it on the road for another couple of years.”
Two years ago, the Metropolitan Sewer District warned the city about the ailing flood protection system in a critical repair and reinvestment plan that came with an expensive price tag.
WFPL analyzed the risks posed by the system last year. But since then, little has been done to bring it up to speed.
At the same time, climate change and development are on a crash course with Louisville’s flood protection system, exacerbating impacts on the aging and outdated infrastructure.
There is renewed hope, however. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has completed a study that could bring about the funds necessary to update the city’s flood protection system.
Louisville’s flood protection system is more than 70 years old in some places. While the floodwalls and levees are still standing, many of the system’s water pumps are failing. In some places, the pumps are so corroded that holes have blown through the steel. In others, outdated electrical systems persist long past their service life.
Walking through Louisville’s pump stations is like walking through a museum. Where you would expect computer monitors and touch screens, there are often switches and dials more fitting of a vintage airplane cockpit.
“These are oil-filled switches right here, so that kind of gives you an idea of the age of the equipment,” Anderson said on a recent tour of the pump stations. “It was probably Thomas Edison involved in helping us get that put together. You laugh but that’s the truth.”
The city operates 16 flood pumping stations and 71 flood pumps. MSD officials regularly run tests on the equipment, making repairs where they can. Because the pumps are so old, the parts have to be custom made or refurbished.
Right now, they’re working on a $1.5 million restoration on three of six pumps at the Paddy’s Run Pump Station, which protects the West End and the city’s industrial corridor.
But Anderson said the “Band-Aid” approach isn’t enough, upgrades are needed across the system.
“We’re trying to provide the same amount of safety for our communities and, you know, that’s not realistic with the age of the equipment,” he said.
The Future of Flood Protection
Two years ago the Metropolitan Sewer District unveiled a $4.3 billion investment plan to fix the city’s ailing sewer and flood protection system.
MSD’s board has the authority to raise rates up to 6.9 percent per year, but can’t raise rates higher without Louisville Metro Council’s approval. It’s come up in committee, but the full Metro Council has not taken a vote on a higher rate increase, said Wes Sydnor, MSD spokesman.
MSD officials say raising rates would allow the city to do more, faster, but they haven’t been able to secure the votes in Metro Council. Without them, MSD is stuck putting off needed repairs on the flood protection system.
“We have to be very strategic in terms of what we try to do first,” Sydnor said.
But there may be another way. In November, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished its own report on the state of Louisville’s flood protection system. It found the system needs an estimated $168 million in repairs. Among them:
- Upgrades at 14 pump stations.
- Reconstruction of more than 500 feet of floodwall at Canal Station.
- Buttressing of about 75 feet of floodwall in Butchertown.
- Repairs at more than 60 locations along the length of the system.
- Permanent closures of gates at 10th and 27th streets.
Army Corps Project Manager Will Ailstock says the hope is to use federal funds in an existing program to pay for the repairs. The plan is now undergoing review and is expected to be complete in September 2020.
“The goal is to do this with two years and $2 million and actually get the study approved within a two-year window,” Ailstock said.
Flooding is the most common and costly natural disaster in Kentucky with annual average losses topping $40 million, according to the 2018 Flood Risk Assessment from the Division of Water.
Experts say it will only get worse in the coming decades.
A catastrophic flood today could affect more than 200,000 residents and nearly $34 billion in property in Louisville Metro, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
But even smaller, hundred-year floods put parts of the city at risk.
The 2018 Division of Water report found a hundred-year flood in Louisville could displace more than 40,000 people and cost more than $3 million in building losses — the worst impacts in the state.
Despite flooding risks, Louisville continues to approve projects for development immediately surrounded by or directly inside the hundred-year floodplain. Among them are housing developments like River Park Place and entertainment venues like Louisville’s new soccer stadium.
Louisville Metro also has more concrete and asphalt than anywhere else in the state, further increasing the runoff that contributes to river, stream and flash flooding. The Division of Water report concludes the places most vulnerable to flooding are large built environments located in floodplains: Basically, Louisville Metro.
“Given the uncertainty of future rainfall, temperature trends, and future development, future flood conditions and costs from flood damages will likely continue to increase unless considerable actions are undertaken by stakeholders at all levels of government, the private sector.”
Climate Change Induced Flooding
As the climate warms, flooding happens more often. That’s because a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, increasing the risks of extreme downpours and droughts.
“It’s like a bigger bucket, it holds onto more water than a cooler atmosphere,” said Tamara Sluss, an aquatic systems researcher at the University of Louisville. “And when that bucket gets full, it dumps.”
These last two years have served as an example of the extremes the Commonwealth could see under climate change. Last year Kentucky experienced more rainfall than any other year on record, and the city’s worst flooding since 1997. This year was on track for the same, but then the rain stopped and the state weathered one of the most extreme droughts on record.
“These are definitely the signs and symptoms of climate change,” Sluss said.
Between 2040 and the end of the century, the extra precipitation across the region is forecast to cause Ohio River maximum stream flows to rise as much as 35 percent, according to a 2017 Army Corps report on climate change in the Ohio River Valley.