Was flood avoidable?Experts analyze the flash flood on I-35 that killed six people: Was it a freak event, or did the highway’s engineering play a part?EMPORIA, Wichita — In the three hours just before Saturday night’s fatal flood roared across I-35 about 9:30 p.m., 6 to 8 inches of rain fell on the area. The culvert that carries Jacob Creek under that section of road wasn’t designed to carry that much water at one time. So the water rose up and over the roadway.Now it is up to forecasters, hydrologists, engineers and other experts to determine whether the flood was unavoidable, or if the way the road was built somehow contributed to the deaths of six people 11 miles south of Emporia.Wednesday, carrying a measuring rod more than 16 feet long, hydrologist Charles Perry walked the soggy northbound ditch along I-35, looking for clues.He was there to do three things, he said: determine how and why the wall of water rushed over the highway; help determine whether the road’s engineering contributed to the six lives’ being lost here; and try, from that work, to bring some solace to families who need answers to these questions.”You can see how high the water rose here,” said Perry, a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, based in Lawrence. “One big lake that gathered in minutes. Many feet higher than the bottom of the creek. Millions of gallons.”To reach the highway, the water had to be at least 10 feet deep. It rose higher than that to flow over the concrete barriers, filling most of the wide Jacob Creek Valley south of I-35.A huge lake formed within minutes Saturday night and rushed north over the roadway, tossing cars and concrete barriers out of the way as it went.Mike Smith, chief executive of Wichita-based WeatherData Inc., a private forecasting company, said radar clearly shows that the rain was falling at unheard of rates in that area Saturday night.WeatherData issued a flash flood warning Saturday night to its clients, including Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. The Kansas Turnpike Authority is also a customer of WeatherData but does not subscribe to its flash flood warnings.The National Weather Service, which turnpike officials do communicate with, made a different decision.Based on information it received from law enforcement officers in the area and the dry conditions before the rain, the weather service decided not to issue a warning, chief meteorologist Dick Elder said Wednesday.Even if it had issued the warning before the flood, the Kansas Turnpike Authority would not have done anything differently, turnpike officials said.Warnings are common, and officials had no reason to think this area would flood, said Mike Johnston, chief executive of the turnpike authority.”It’s these things you hardly ever see,” Johnston said. “These acts of God. I don’t know any other way to frame it.”A review of emergency radio records by The Wichita Eagle gives a glimpse at how the flood unfolded and the response by public safety officials.The first call to the Highway Patrol and Kansas Turnpike Authority came in at 8:47 p.m. when Chase County said it had received a cell phone call from a driver reporting water over the road at milepost 116, where Jacob Creek crosses under the highway.Trooper Marc McCune, who was working an accident about seven miles from there, arrived on the scene at 9:01 p.m. and announced: “We have a definite problem here. Traffic is backed up in both directions. Really backed up. It is raining hard.”Dispatch immediately began calling in maintenance crews to divert traffic.At 9:21 p.m., Highway Patrol dispatch received a report that cars were starting to float over the barriers.Finally at 9:35 p.m., McCune announced: “Water is running so fast. Numerous vehicles swept off the road. I can hear people screaming, but I can’t see anybody.”Perry and another hydrologist, Seth Studley, are trying to figure out the complete dimensions of what happened.”It’ll take a little calculus from the measurements we’ll take here today,” Perry said. “But from that, we’ll figure out what happened and whether we’ve got an engineering question here.”But we already know the basic equation,” he said. “Water runs downhill. And there was an enormous amount of water…. I’m not sure you can do anything about an amount of water like that.”When the highway was built nearly 50 years ago, it was designed to handle a “100-year storm” without flooding, according to Tom Wurdeman, chief engineer for the Kansas Turnpike Authority.The rain Saturday night exceeded a 100-year storm, which is a storm of such intensity that chances of it occurring are about 1 percent a year.The 100-year storm for that area, would dump 8 inches of rain in 24 hours, according to the National Climatic Data Center.The culvert worked as it was designed to, Wurdeman said.”The culvert was clean and open,” Wurdeman said. “Like they say, it was an act of God. We had a lot of rain at once.”Culverts are built about every 100 yards along the 236-mile Kansas Turnpike to carry water under the road. Hundreds of gullies and creeks cross under the highway.The American Association of State and Highway Transportation Officials, which sets standards for federal highway construction, said protecting a highway from more than a 100-year rain would be too costly.”You tend to plan for extraordinary events, not catastrophic events,” said Jennifer Gavin, the organization’s spokeswoman. “If we planned every road we built for extreme conditions, the cost might be quite high.”Perry said he felt bad for the families.”It’ll take a while to figure this out,” he said. “And whatever we do will be reviewed and double-checked….”But we’ll figure out why this happened.”
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