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Several Small Steps Lead to Safety

ESSEX COUNTY, MA – Flooding is the most common natural disaster threatening U.S. residents today. While each state has its own set of hazards and risks to deal with, the majority of states count flooding as the most likely disaster citizens will have to face, and Massachusetts is no exception. In the past 20 years alone, there have been at least 16 major floods in Massachusetts, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

The City of Peabody, which lies about 15 miles northeast of Boston and 3 miles from the Massachusetts coast, has seen its share of damaging floods. Three streams – Goldthwaite, Strongwater, and Proctor Brooks – converge in downtown Peabody to form the North River, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

“The problem with the hydrology here is that all the water is going to one place,” said Chris Tighe, Peabody’s Director of Emergency Management. “If we can get the water to the North River, we’re going to be ok. Our best asset is low tide, when the ocean just drains all the water out of the system. The problem is, when we get back-ups, there’s no place for the water to go.”

In May 2006, runoff from the famous “Mother’s Day storm” inundated downtown Peabody to depths of 3 to 4 feet, in some areas reaching as wide as 1/2 mile. With no convenient means of egress, in some areas the water took as long as 48 hours to recede. In assessing the aftermath of the 2006 flood, Peabody officials realized they needed to make some changes to their drainage network to lessen effects of future floods, as well as upgrade several critical systems that had been threatened.

One of the first measures Tighe undertook was to secure funds to clean out the channels of several streams running throughout Peabody. To get the money needed to accomplish this considerable task, Tighe applied to the U.S. Department of Labor for a National Emergency Grant (NEG). NEGs allow communities to temporarily increase their workforce through the employment of individuals affected by large, unforeseen economic events that cause significant job losses. Peabody qualified for such assistance and, through the Valley Works NEG Northeast Flood project, was awarded $540,000 to conduct the stream cleanup.

Beginning in November 2006, Tighe and his crew canvassed more than 10 miles of waterways, clearing out debris and refuse. They discovered early on that a major contributor to the high water problems Peabody had suffered was the large amount of garbage that had accumulated in the channels through and around the city.

“As an example, we removed a mattress that had become wedged in one of our culverts,” reported Tighe. “And as soon as we pulled it out, the water level immediately dropped drastically, probably as much as two to three feet.”

The clean-up project took almost 2 years to complete and ultimately resulted in the removal of more than twenty 44-cubic yard containers of recyclables, junk, and organic material.

An unexpected benefit of the streambed cleanup came when the team discovered that a culvert running beneath a railroad track had sustained major damage over the years. Though the openings appeared normal, the interior of the culvert had collapsed due to the constant vibration from passing trains. The obstructed pipe turned out to be responsible for many backups and the consequent flooding. Thanks to the clean-up efforts, the Peabody Department of Public Works was able to identify the problem and repair the pipe. In addition to fixing the damaged railroad culvert, Peabody has sought grant assistance from a number of sources to improve several other culverts in the city to increase the overall efficiency of their drainage network.

Reducing future flood levels in Peabody has been only one step in the city officials’ approach to mitigation. During the Mother’s Day flooding in 2006, the ability of both the police and fire stations to respond to emergencies was nearly compromised. As the water rose in the basements of both buildings, it became clear that the city was in danger of losing several critical systems.

“We were within 3 inches of losing our 911 system,” said Tighe. “The deputy police chief called and told me to do whatever I could to help, and that we were going to have to run our entire system from another community if we lost it.”

In response to the risk posed by the high water, a decision was made to protect the utilities and services of both stations. To make the changes needed, Peabody officials applied for grant assistance from two of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA's) available grant programs.

The city received $225,000 from FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA) program to redirect and upgrade the police station’s electrical and 911 systems to protect them from future flood damage. In addition, a new generator was purchased, and new pumps were installed so that water levels could be managed more efficiently in future floods.

Peabody’s fire station was built in the 1800s and is one of the oldest headquarters stations in the country. In fact, the station harkens back to the days when fire trucks were pulled by horses. Like the police station, the fire department’s systems had been installed in the basement. During the Mother’s Day flood, the original pumps were incapable of dealing with the fast rising water.

“We had everything down there,” said Joe DaSilva, a signal maintainer and electrician for the fire department. “Our electrical service, our meter, our main breakers, transfer switches and the entire communication system. In the 2006 flood, the water was about 6 inches away from shorting us out.”

Peabody received a grant for $101,250 from FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) (2) to upgrade their at-risk utilities. Due to the amount of equipment that needed to be elevated, and the limited space available on the fire station’s first floor, the fire department decided to use part of the grant to construct a separate, elevated room on the exterior of the station. The rest of the grant was used to purchase a new, larger generator and to transfer the fire department’s remaining utilities to the new room.

In March 2010, a series of major rainstorms over a short period caused record-setting floods throughout Massachusetts. Several communities in the eastern and central parts of the state received as much as 12 inches of rain, and major flooding was reported on many rivers and streams. While Peabody still had to contend with high water and some flooding, the situation they faced was much easier to handle thanks to the efforts taken following the 2006 Mother’s Day Storm. Neighborhoods and private homes that previously would have been inundated did not flood. In the past, many of these houses would have had as much as 6 feet of water in their basement, but this year some had less than a foot, and most were not flooded at all.

“The water goes down much more quickly now,” said Tighe. “Instead of taking two days, it goes down in one cycle of the ocean. If we hadn’t made these drainage improvements, our streets would have been closed for a longer period, possibly as long as 48 hours or more. And there would have been a lot more damage. In addition, the upgrades we made to the police and fire stations’ systems allowed us to keep operating with no interruption of service. It gives us real peace of mind.”

FMA grants provide funds to assist states and communities to implement measures that reduce or eliminate the long-term risk of flood damage to buildings, manufactured homes, and other structures insured under the National Flood Insurance Program.

The HMGP allows local governments to apply to their state government for federal grant assistance to implement long-term hazard mitigation measures after a major disaster declaration.

Last updated Jun 3, 2020