By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
SALTILLO – Mayor Bill Williams had barely entered office when his flooding woes began.
On July 24, 2005, a Daily Journal editorial cartoon depicted residents paddling through the flood-prone Willow Creek subdivision and blaming their newly elected mayor.
One month later, Hurricane Katrina bathed portions of the city in flood waters; Willow Creek was especially hard hit. Again, residents and media looked at the mayor.
Their glare was harsh, Williams recalled Friday. But they prompted him to take swift action against a situation that had festered long before his election.
The problem was multi-fold: Saltillo had outdated flood maps; poor development oversight; little drainage maintenance and no one held accountable.
Five years later, Williams and his staff proudly report success. As proof, they cite the May 3 downpour that dumped as much rain over the city as did Katrina – but with drastically different results.
Although standing water briefly accumulated on Willow Creek roads, homes inside the subdivision did not flood.
“We’ve not had any water in any house in Willow Creek since Katrina,” Williams said. “So far we’ve dodged the bullet. Some rains we sit with our fingers crossed.”
In the past several years, the city’s Public Works Department has cleaned and maintained 21,222 feet of ditches, including some large ones around Willow Creek, said department Director Richard Feist.
That program alone has curbed much of the flooding citywide. Before, Feist said, ditches were overgrown with weeds and foliage that trapped flood waters instead of allowing them to flow freely.
“We’re more proactive,” he said, explaining that his staff routinely monitors the drainage system before, during and after rainfalls.
The city also bought nearly 32 acres near Willow Creek and built a 2 million-gallon water-detention facility to collect rainwater.
Chris Long, who has lived in Willow Creek for 10 years, said the number of flooding incidents has steadily decreased since Williams became mayor.
“It has gotten better,” Long said. “If we still get a lot of rain, the road still floods, but within 30 minutes the roads are cleared off. Before, it’d stay a couple hours before it went to the back of the subdivision and drained out.”
When developers built Willow Creek more than a decade ago, the area wasn’t considered a high-risk flood zone, according to the FEMA flood map.
But that map was old, created in the mid-1970s and without modern technology.
A new map adopted by the city this year is more accurate and places Willow Creek inside the flood zone. Other areas also now fall into the high-risk zone, and the city encourages developers not to build there.
If they do develop there, they’d have to build higher and meet other requirements.
Had the flood map been accurate at the time of Willow Creek’s development, it would have been built about four feet higher or not at all, said Brian Grissom, the city’s flood map administrator.
“Most likely it wouldn’t have been built, because it would have cost so much to put that dirt in,” Grissom said. “Now that it is in a flood zone, those residents will need to have flood insurance.”
It’s a costly expense for many homeowners, but it will protect them in case of a major flood, Williams said. And no matter how proactive the city’s efforts, another Willow Creek flood is inevitable if conditions are right, Williams said.
But the flood maps could change slightly before long. State officials will review several areas, including those along Euclatubba and Sand creeks, to make adjustments.
“Remapping is a painful and arduous process, but it’s good that we’re doing it,” Williams said. “Saltillo is in a better position in regards to flooding now that even before.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
– To learn more about flood maps, go online to http://geology.deq.state.ms.us/floodmaps.