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Flood Control Mitigation Saves Employment

BRADLEY COUNTY, TN – Without funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP), a city in southeast Tennessee might not have broken a cycle of flooding that threatened to drive away its top employer. In early 2003, 2 days of torrential rains inundated downtown Cleveland, causing the owners of the Whirlpool plant to consider closing. The city, the seat of Bradley County, has flooded after each heavy downpour and the problem needed to be fixed.

“In the early ’80s, we had continuous rescue missions to save people from their homes,” said Troy Spence, Bradley County Emergency Management Agency Director.

Greg Thomas, Community Development Director and Floodplain Administrator, said, “After the 2003 event, we had the proof of what stormwater could do to this old, compact area.”

To help reduce losses to an area after a major disaster has been declared, FEMA provides HMGP grants to local and state governments to complete long-term mitigation projects. After comprehensive flood studies were conducted, the city of Cleveland applied for HMGP funding through the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. The funds allowed properties in the most hazardous areas to be purchased in order to construct three dry detention ponds. The ponds, drainage areas designed for flood control, temporarily hold stormwater runoff that gets trapped in areas prone to flash flooding.

The catastrophic flooding in 2003 caused an estimated $500,000 in damage to the Whirlpool plant. Two previous floods, in April 1964 and March 1973, had also caused thousands of dollars of damage to the plant. The owners were tired of repairing or replacing resources and stopping production. Every time the damage was repaired, rain would once again drench the building. One critical area that was constantly at high risk of flooding was the raw steel room, which houses thousands of pallets of steel used in production. The steel, once wet, cannot be used and must be replaced.

“One pallet of raw steel averages between 5 to 10 thousand dollars,” Spence said.

Options to reduce the impact of flash flooding, such as moving the location of the steel room and production stations within the facility, would be much more costly. The entire plant would have to be redesigned in order to follow production flow and relocate the steel supply room. The flood control project was the most cost-effective plan.

Although Cleveland is home to several manufacturing companies, closure of its largest employer, Whirlpool, would be devastating to the local economy. Built more than 100 years ago, the plant has been home to various major household appliance manufacturers, including Magic Chef Inc. The area once housed many businesses and residents, but Whirlpool remains intact, solely producing cooking appliances.

In 2008, the mitigation project enabled the company to bring 500 additional jobs to Cleveland, while greatly reducing the city’s repetitive loss.

“Whirlpool made the decision to close a nearby plant in Mississippi and move that operation to Cleveland,” said Whirlpool Safety, Health and Security Manager Tim Edwards.

Residents and business operators in the area agree that the detention ponds were a great investment for the community. The detention ponds have helped save more than 1,500 jobs, allowing Whirlpool to continue calling Cleveland home.

Currently, Whirlpool officials are planning to build a new facility that will add 130 positions to the city’s workforce.

“It was good for the industry, the community, and the citizens that live around the community,” Spence said. “It was a win-win for all!”

Last updated June 3, 2020