By NANCY LYBARGER
NEWBURGH, Ind. — It may sound strange right now in the Midwest to hear talk about flood damage, but it’s been a conversation topic at meetings for more than a year in this southwestern Indiana town of 3,000.
In the spring of 2011, Newburgh was besieged by heavy rains and flooding. All that water caused a prominent hillside to slip further toward the Ohio River. But the problem has been addressed and it should never happen again, according to Cynthia Burger, the newly retired town manager.
Burger was Newburgh’s administrative chief during the 2011 flood - which reached almost-epic proportions - and the reconstruction of the hill at the Old Lock and Dam Park.
A reception last week at the Old Lock and Dam site by the town and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) celebrated the end of the project. Town officials said it could not have been completed without the support of the NRCS.
Burger said the project has cost about $750,000. Leanna Hughes, who served as president of the Town Council during the restoration project, said town officials were stunned when they learned the problem was so severe.
“You may not know how important this project has been or how overwhelming it was to us. There is no way we could afford to fix this,” Hughes told the group gathered for the reception.
Constructed with fill when Locks and Dam #47 was constructed in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the first slip of the hill was noted in 2008.
In an earlier interview, Burger said fill was layered over shale at the time of the dam construction.
With heavy rain events through the years, the saturated soil caused the bedrock to fracture and allowed moisture to seep into the cracks. She said geologists examining the damage estimated the slide started 15 feet under the surface, so it went unnoticed for several years.
Burger contacted FEMA when the first slide appeared as a drop-off on the east side of the hill. FEMA doesn’t deal with landslides of this type, she was informed, and at that time NRCS did not consider the situation an emergency.
Only after the 2011 floods, and further sliding of the hill, did NRCS rank the situation as an emergency and agree to help fund the restoration project. The more serious slip had caused damage to the foundations and utility lines of the two cottages formerly occupied by a lockmaster and an assistant; buckled a long series of concrete steps that run from the top of the hill to the street below; and posed enough danger of collapse, that the town engineer recommended keeping the public away from the popular area.
Assistant State Conservationist Roger Kult said funding for the project came through the Emergency Watershed Project (EWP). He represented State Conservationist Jane Hardesty, who is serving currently in Washington, D.C.
“Only after all other means have been exhausted, will EWP funds kick in,” he said. “At that time, EWP can step in locally to reduce the impact of the hazards. This program does not work without the efforts of local sponsors.”
Local sponsors in this case were the town and the Warrick County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), he said. Rebuilding a hillside was not familiar territory for the SWCD or NRCS in Indiana, Kult said, noting disasters in this area typically involve floods and tornados. State Conservation Engineer Mike Cox oversaw the reconstruction.
Warrick County SWCD Supervisor Geralyn Bradley presented the town a scrapbook with photos of the project from start to finish.
Town Engineer David Hynes, of Commonwealth Engineers, said after the first slide was noticed, geotechs monitored the hill, and in May 2011 warned him significant work needed to be done. “The work that’s been completed up there will stand the test of time,” Hynes said.
Brian Fox, project manager for Blankenberger Brothers, Inc. of Cynthiana, Ind., told the group there are still a few things that need to be finished on the project, such as laying sod over the gash waiting for Vectren Energy to relocate a gas line. “But come spring,” he said, “the facilities will be open and everything will be greened up.”
The town owns the two houses on the hilltop and rents them out for overnight stays. The houses have been not been used since the slip. NRCS funded 75 percent of the restoration, Burger said. The award was announced March 1, 2012, and construction began last summer. To keep the hill stable, pilings were forced into the ground about 30 feet and the hill was graded to a new angle.
New steps were poured and the cottages’ foundations were repaired. Kult recognized other state NCRS staff who assisted with the Newburgh project: Craig Farmer, Travor Shepard, Chris Lee, Dan Hovland and Scott Christ.
Having a dry summer allowed the project to be nearly completed before the end of 2012. So, while farmers were praying for rain last summer, those working on the Newburgh hill were happy to see dry conditions.
Ironically, on the day of the reception, the Ohio River again approached flood level and muddy water lapped at the tree line across the road from the restored hill. But, no one was worried about a hillslide in Newburgh.
“It’s fixed. It’s over. You can forget it ever happened,” Kult said.