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Hell and High Water

“It looks like a moonscape,” says James Willey, President of the Lake Delhi Recreation Association, which owns and operates the dam. The trouble started Friday night, July 23. “Imagine the hardest rain you’ve ever seen, and it was like that for a long time,” says Willey.  The water at the dam crested at 13 feet above normal, putting the residents and homes in the 43 community associations around the lake at risk. Lake Delhi’s misfortune highlights the importance of planning and maintenance for those associations with dams, lakes and other waterways. Floods are the most common natural disaster in the country, according to the National Flood Insurance Program, and cause $2.4 billion in losses yearly. Problems, when they pen, can leave waves of woes that threaten the finances of associations and the home values of residents. Too often, people think it can’t happen to them, says Josh DeBerge, spokesman for the regional office of Federal Emergency Management Agency in Kansas City, Mo. ”It’s amazing to me how quickly people forget water rises and can get close to their home,” DeBerge says. But there is hope.


 A Reston, Va., master association that serves many homeowners associations sets an example of how to prevent problems. A Georgia river community shows how to recover when things go wrong. And Lake Delhi’s leaders vow to rebuild their dam and reclaim their little corner of paradise.   


The water of Lake Audubon in Reston sparkles in the sun light. Rows of townhomes are tucked amid hardwood trees along the shores, with pontoon boats pulled up next to piers along the banks. Not far from the earthen dam at the end of the lake, a spillway rustles pleasantly, swallowing gallon upon gallon of water to keep the lake at a stable elevation.


Larry Butler’s job is to make sure that soothing gurgle of the spillway doesn’t turn into a deafening roar of high water or worse. He’s director of parks and recreation for the Reston Association, which runs the four lakes and other recreation areas for the 21,146 homes that belong to 133 homeowners associations. 

Butler has worked most of his career for the Reston Association, which has two chains of lakes and a stream that is currently being modified to reduce flooding. Lake Audubon is downstream and separated by a critical dam from the bigger and deeper Lake Thoreau. Lakes Anne and Newport also are connected. 

“If there were a wall of water that came down from Lake Thoreau …the concern we have is, what sort of flooding would it cause to some of the lower houses along the lake. Clearly, the boats would be all over the place,” says Butler as he points through the oak trees to a stand of townhouses just 8 feet above the lake. 

Tropical Storm Hannah in 2008 dropped 7 inches of rain in the area and left several dumpsters worth of trees and trash in the lakes. It took the association three weeks to clean up.  Hundreds of homes line Reston’s four lakes, including condominiums, townhouses and gracious single-family homes. 

Some of the older homes around Lake Anne sit right on the on the lake, with sliding doors just about 5 feet above the water.  Ken Knueven, a resident since 1989, has one of those homes and does much of his entertaining on a deck that  hangs over the water. “We’ve been through several tropical storms and one hurricane. Our landscaped dock has gone under water,” says Knueven, a director of the Reston Association.  However, he doesn’t worry about damage because he knows  the lakes and dams are well maintained.  “It’s not something you can neglect, that’s for sure,” says Knueven. “Dollars up front are dollars well spent to maintain something like this.”


Residents are committed to spending the money for watershed projects because they are drawn to the community by the green space and water. “To us, it’s like having a small resort we come home to every day,” he says of his development, which was designed to echo Porto Fino, Italy.  Reston Association spends $250,000 annually for its lakes, ponds and streams program, not including dredging.  Sometimes, financial help can come from unexpected places. Reston Association received $4 million to restore Snake Den Branch from a fund created by developers. The stream had become a dirt canyon. The restoration effort will widen it, put in vegetation, raise the stream bed and add intricately designed waterfalls that slow the flow of water.  The efforts already are paying off. The narrow slit of a stream used to pump huge amounts of sediment into Lake Audubon, turning it brown with mud and creating expensive dredging costs. That doesn’t happen anymore.




The Coosawattee River Resort, 70 miles north of Atlanta, now spends just about $3,000 yearly on its water resources, including a dam on its pond.  But first, the community of 7,000 lots had to pay up for a lack of past planning.


David Durgin, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, was just a month or so into his job as chief operating officer of the association when spring rains wreaked havoc in May 2003. One Saturday, four inches fell and flood gates at dams upstream of the community had to be opened. The water crested about 5 feet above normal, flooding bath houses, parks and private homes along the river. 


As the water crept up toward the top of the dam, Durgin got worried and workers got busy. By luck, they had a pile of sand on hand for a road project. A grounds crew set up a flood brigade filling sandbags and loading them onto a backhoe to shore up the top of the dam.  When the skies cleared, the dam had held.  There was 5550,000 of repairs to bridges, roadways, bath houses and other damaged common space. But if the dam failed, it probably would have cost another $1 million in repairs, Durgin says.  The storm put a big dent in the $2.7 million annual budget. Now, Durgin says they have a 52 million reserve fund that can help with future disasters.  They’ve also got a taller dam. An emergency management plan has replaced the seat-of-the pants reaction after the spring storm. The plan includes public address systems on safety vehicles to broadcast warnings, Army Corps of Engineers flood monitor gauges, and an emergency notification system to contact residents through text, e-mail and voice mail



Associations and individual homeowners also need to protect themselves financially with insurance.  

Flooding costs can be devastating.  The National Flood Insurance Program’s floodsmart.gov, for instance, estimates that 6 inches of flooding in a 1,000-square-foot home causes more than $20,000 in damage.


That makes insurance especially important. The government-backed National Flood Insurance Program offers coverage, but there’s a catch. Communities must participate in the program and agree to meet or exceed FEMRs requirements for reducing the risks of flooding. In Lake Delhi, for instance, the county had decided not to participate, so residents couldn’t buy NFIP insurance. (They’ve since changed their minds, which could protect residents in future floods.)


Properties in high-risk zones-called special flood hazard areas-must have flood insurance to get a federally backed mortgage. Insurance agents and FEMA officials say few people outside those areas get flood insurance, but they should.  “Most of the time a flood occurs, it happens in areas that are not in the flood zone. You can’t control rain. Down here sometimes we get 7 inches in an hour,” says Pierre Granger, CIRMS, an insurance broker with NSI Insurance Group who handles many homeowners associations in Southeast Florida. “If they’re not in a flood zone, the premium is very low.”


And the costs of being flooded are high. FEMRs DeBerge says the average claim under the NFIP is $33,000.  Associations and individuals can check FEMRs website to see whether their land is in a high-risk area. Although lenders require flood insurance on the buildings they underwrite in high-risk areas, they don’t require it in other areas, and they don’t push homeowners to insure the contents of their homes.  “The probability of there being a near-total loss in a flood is much greater than even a fire,” says Michael Berg of Berg Insurance Agency in Southern California, who writes policies for 500 associations. “Kitchen fires can be put out with a fire extinguisher. Larger fires can be put out by the fire department. But when it comes to natural rising water, I can’t control that.” 


Regular homeowners insurance covers things like burst pipes but not floods that come into your home. Homeowners should have 100 percent replacement cost coverage and should insure their contents, Berg says. The coverage for contents can cost as little as 10 percent extra on the policy but deliver crucial aid for a homeowner who loses everything.  


Associations that own common areas generally buy the NFIP insurance if they are in a high-risk area. Sometimes, though, if part of a condominium complex is in a flood zone but not all of it, the association leaves the most affected homeowners to get their own coverage.  


FEMA remaps the flood zones periodically. In an Ontario, California, condominium community with 30 buildings, the remapping came as a surprise. Berg said one homeowner tried to refinance and found out that part of the building had been labeled high-risk. The association fought and won so it wouldn’t have to buy the insurance. But Berg says they should. “What if they (FEMA) were right?”


Associations with water bodies also must deal with a thicket of rules.  Virginia has increased requirements on what intensity of storm a dam must withstand, and that could mean extra expenses and efforts for groups like the Reston Association. Dam permits in the state are renewed every six years, so Butler is preparing for new engineering studies that will indicate whether the current system of dams and spillways meets the new stricter rules. Butler says the “probable maximum precipitation”–as the state rules call the worst-case scenario-was 24 inches in 24 hours. But after a few big local

storms, the figure was recalculated to 36 inches.  A l00-year storm, by comparison, would bring about 9 inches.


Butler’s four dams were designed for the old worst-case scenario, so he needs a new engineering study to tell him whether his dams will be able to handle the new estimated worst-case. “We’re talking about obscene amounts of rain.”  However unlikely that monster storm is, Butler has a healthy respect for the possibility. The lake has plenty of homes, parking lots and roads in its watershed, all of which make it harder for the land to absorb water. Because of that, the lake level can rise with lightning speed. He watched one day as 6 inches of water inundated the area in 15 minutes. “It was raining like a son of a gun. The water just came up (quickly),” he says, reminding him of how fast flooding can happen. 



Butler’s trip out in the rain is one of many steps he takes to prevent problems. He keeps his blue Gore-Tex jacket, boots and rain pants at the ready.  “I love it!,” says Butler, a Weather Channel aficionado. “You’ve got to see it and understand what it’s doing to your property and the property of others who may come back to you and say, ‘Your property impacted mine.'”


The best way to understand how a watershed reacts to storms is to go out and watch. He and his staff head into the rain and even take photos to document what happens so they can plan for the next storm. It helps them know what roads and homes are most affected so they can warn county officials, who can notify residents. The sorties help him know which bridges have been stressed by water and need to be checked for structural stability and how dams reacted to certain water levels.


Butler also swears by regular engineering studies. Instead of annually, he has consultants in quarterly. Staying on top of maintenance-especially if it’s been formally recommended by those consultants-is important.

“If it’s documented, you better do it,” Butler says. “Because you can be absolutely certain if something happens, that document is going to come into play.”


Emergency action plans can be life savers. Butler says the technology is really improving so that he can superimpose aerial photography and topographical maps to estimates of the floodway that would be affected by a particular level of storm. That gives the association detailed information about exactly which homes need to be notified of the need for evacuation.


Lake Delhi had to issue one of those evacuation orders. Now they are dealing with what could be protracted fighting over the aftermath of the disaster.


FEMA ruled last year that Lake Delhi is not eligible for recovery aid. Willey says that argument is flawed because the agency deemed the lake private when actually it’s owned by the state of Iowa and open to the public. The FEMA decision, which is being appealed, meant the federal government took back millions of dollars it had promised to fix problems from 2008 floods. And unless the Lake Delhi Recreation Association wins its appeal, the cleanup costs from the 2010 dam disaster won’t be covered either.  “At the time we needed them the most they pulled the rug out from under us,” Willey says.


About 300 homes were damaged. Many sit empty now, stripped to their studs. Willey’s house on top of a bluff was spared, but he lost a dock and some boat lifts. “There wasn’t a property not affected in some way,” he says. The trash removal bill alone is already $30,000 and there’s much more to do. “We’re making progress but we have no help,” he says. 


When Lake Delhi’s dam failed, Willey’s association was the process of gearing it back up to produce electricity. It was built in 1927, a portion of it an earthen dam with a cement wall inside. Until nuclear energy became the fashion, the dam also had a hydropower section that produced electricity.

The weekend of the storm, the floodgates released water into the river below. But by Saturday, the lake was so high that water was starting to pour over the top of the dam. The force pushed some of the water through the top section of earthen dam above the concrete wall. Dam operators discovered that at 3 a.m., and residents were notified to evacuate. By 1 p.m., the dam, riddled with holes from the rushing water, failed entirely, a 200-foot hole replacing the earth and concrete dam that had the lake in for generations.  “It pretty much drained the lake. It’s a very sad sight,” Willey says.


Willey and residents are pushing for a fast rebuilding, but the recriminations and legal appeals could take years. First courts will have to sort out questions who is responsible for a 1960s road act that raised the dam above the concrete wall and created the section of that failed to hold back the water.

Rebuilding is difficult with so much ambiguity. For example, Willey says a resident with a house that was worth $300,000 before the flood might have a $200,000 mortgage and now $80,000 worth of repairs to make. With uncertainty over whether the lake will the house might be worth just $100,000 now. “Who’s going to give you a loan?”

“(But), we are committed to getting the lake back,” Willey says. “Without the lake, the community will cease to exist.”


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