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County waits on long-term solutions to local flooding

Friday, June 17, 2016 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

April Marshall stood among the remains of her mother’s home last month in southeast Travis County, pointing out the new donated couch still wrapped in plastic. The family was still in the process of furnishing their home after it had been wrecked by flooding in October when roughly 3 feet of floodwaters rushed their home yet again in May.

“We worked hard to rebuild everything,” said Marshall. Her mother had lived in the Thoroughbred Farms neighborhood for 43 years and had only just been flooded for the first time last year. “Everything we bought and replaced is gone again.”

And while the county and local nonprofits have been able to provide some immediate assistance, long-term solutions remain to be identified. Back in March, county officials made a rare move by approving roughly $176,000 to fund an engineering study to determine what caused the flooding in Thoroughbred Farms.

But until the results of that study come back — and they’re expected in the fall — the county’s in a bit of a holding pattern.

“We still don’t have answers for these folks,” said Stacey Scheffel, a floodplain administrator with Travis County. But some residents have blamed recent development in the area, including a project to widen a nearby portion of FM 973.

While examining this project will be part of the county’s engineering study, a spokesperson with the Texas Department of Transportation said roadwork had no effect on local drainage.

Regardless, one county official has noted the unprecedented nature of this flooding.

“We have heard from residents that this is highly unusual flooding,” said Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea. “It has not occurred in the past. In the most recent comments, we heard people describe how walls of water were coming down the streets and between the houses, not coming up from the creek. So that seems to indicate there is something else going on there.”

Whatever the causes are, the study due to be completed in the fall will also recommend some long-term solutions. Scheffel said they’re open to ideas.

“Anything’s on the table,” she said. “It could be a levy, it could be structural elevations, it could be buyouts.”

But each of these poses its own challenge. A flood buyout program is expensive. The city of Austin has been struggling to afford its own programs — especially because it must provide relocation funds for residents and, as home prices rise across the county, relocation becomes costlier.

And then something like a levy or floodwall requires a lot of preparation.

“Levies are a difficult thing. … There’s a lot of requirements going into the design for those,” said Scheffel. “I wouldn’t expect a levy to be the solution, but I want to leave everything on the table for these contractors to figure out what’s going on.”

Scheffel hopes that the study will be finished before the county finalizes its budget. (The next fiscal year begins Oct. 1.)

“There’s a potential for the court going out for bonds, and I don’t want to miss out on any funding opportunities for any potential projects out there,” she said.

In the meantime, cleanup continues in homes more than two weeks after flooding hit. Volunteers with the Austin Disaster Relief Network will be out in the Thoroughbred Farms area today.

This story is the result of a partnership between the Austin Monitor and KUT.

Photo: April Marshall stands near her damaged furniture, outside of her home in South Austin. By Miguel Gutierrez Jr./KUT News.

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