Flooding is a major problem for communities in southern Delaware. Photo by Kevin Snyder, The News Journal

A flood of innovation

UD and the state work together to mitigate coastal flooding in Delaware


4 p.m., April 4, 2011--Living along the southern coast of Delaware definitely has its perks. Fishing, beaches and cool bay breezes can make for an idyllic way of life. But members of the Kent County community can tell you that living by the water is not always a carefree existence. 

On Mother’s Day in 2008, the Delaware Bay coast of Kent County suffered a serious coastal flooding event. One person died and at least 150 residents were evacuated from their homes. Monetary estimates of the damage ranged from $1–2 million. Not only were community members unprepared for the event, but emergency management officials had no accurate gauge as to how serious the flooding would be, and thus their response was delayed. 

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The aftereffects of the Mother’s Day flood left citizens and emergency management officials alike wondering if there was a better way to plan for these types of events.  Two state agencies, the Delaware Emergency Management Agency (DEMA) and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), collaborated with the University of Delaware and the Delaware Geological Survey (DGS) and found an answer in the Delaware Environmental Observing System (DEOS). 

Led by professors David R. Legates and Daniel J. Leathers from the Department of Geography, DEOS was created in 2003 as a real-time, regional monitoring system that provides data on weather conditions, water levels, snow depth, and various other environmental factors obtained from automated weather stations in and around the state. 

Bob Scarborough, senior scientist for DNREC’s Delaware Coastal Programs section, calls the collaboration between the state and the University “critical” for the success of the system. 

“The University has the expertise and experience to develop the system, while the state has the data available to validate the information, as well as the outreach connections to insure that critical users are familiar with the system and know how to access it,” he says.

The coastal flood monitoring system was established primarily for emergency personnel in Kent County as an early warning system for coastal flooding events. John A. Callahan, a research associate for DGS, and Kevin Brinson, a researcher for DEOS, launched a prototype forecast notification system and website displaying pertinent information regarding local water levels. DNREC and the Delaware EPSCoR program provided funding for the project. 

According to Brinson, “The system obtains information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service and then applies that information in a graphical format to estimate or predict when flooding can potentially occur in Kent County communities.” 

The website allows users to choose from six different locations in Kent County: Leipsic, Little Creek, Pickering Beach, Kitts Hummock, Bowers Beach and Slaughter Beach. Emergency management officials or private landowners are able to view the website and get specific information about current and forecasted water levels in their area. For example, inundation maps on the site show the potential for flooding in a particular community at different water levels. 

“Something that is also nice about the site is you can change the transparency of the flood data overlay to give you a better look of where those potential flood issues are on the street map or satellite view,” says Callahan. 

Also available on the site is a graph of forecasted water levels up to four days in advance, including the maximum forecasted water level in that time period. This can be helpful to emergency management officials if they know that certain communities will be flooded at a particular water level. 

In connection with the tide graph and inundation maps are road elevation profiles. The road elevation profile allows users to view potential flooding points along the main roads or evacuation routes of their communities. 

Perhaps one of the most important and useful features of the system is its ability to send emergency management personnel an email or text message warning them of a potential flood in their community. 

“That email will tell them that at sometime in the next four days the water levels at this location will reach or exceed a certain level,” explains Callahan. “In that email or text message, it will state the forecasted water level and time it might occur.  It will also direct them to this website and encourage them to start preparations for a potential flooding situation. The website is meant only for guidance, not to remove emergency managers from the equation.” 

This feature, in particular, may help emergency management officials and community members alike be more prepared for coastal flooding events, giving people a chance to protect their property and possibly saving lives. 

The future looks bright for the coastal flood monitoring system, as Kent County emergency officials will soon undergo more detailed, formal training regarding the system. Although it’s still in the beginning stages, DGS and DEOS have received further funding from DNREC to expand the system along the coast north to the city of New Castle and south to the city of Lewes. 

DNREC believes that the newest phase of this project will be just as successful as the initial, due to similar coastal geography. According to Scarborough, future plans also include further expansion into the Inland Bays area of Sussex County and into the northwestern Piedmont area of New Castle County. Though the hilly topography of northern Delaware will create a whole new set of complications and necessitate upgrades to the system, the state and the University have proven that together they can come up with innovative solutions.

Article by Kate Sadowski

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