Rural homeowners at odds with Clinton Lake Project Office over what caused Aug. 1 flooding

photo by: Contributed photo

An screenshot of drone footage shows the severe flooding in a rural Douglas County neighborhood that occurred on Aug. 1. Mike Perryman's home is seen on the right and Gina Grigaitis' home is seen just above it. The Washington Creek, where the floodwaters came from, sits within the tree lines behind their homes.

As Mike Perryman watched floodwaters surround his home in rural Douglas County while his wife and daughter were still inside, he wondered what could have caused such a disaster.

While he was aware of the 8 to 10 inches of rain in the weather forecast the night of July 31, seeing the often-shallow Washington Creek quickly fill with water did not make sense to him. Additionally, the water of the creek, which normally heads north to flow into the Wakarusa River, was then flowing the other direction.

“Everything was running back (south),” he said. “It started going back through low points along the creek and back into our properties.”

The massive flooding Perryman and his neighbors suffered is part of a natural disaster known as a 500-year flood that covered parts of southern Douglas County on Aug. 1. The flood is considered to be a 500-year event because it has a 0.2% chance of occurring in any given year.

But Perryman doesn’t believe his neighborhood, which is located just southeast of Clinton Lake off 1200 Road, flooded solely because of natural causes. He and his neighbors believe the flooding occurred because of human error.

As the rain began to fall on July 31, the Army Corps of Engineers’ Clinton Lake Project Office was letting out thousands of gallons of water from Clinton Lake into the Wakarusa River. It continued to do so overnight, throughout the duration of the storm.

The project office did not turn off the water release until 8 a.m. Aug. 1, after the area was already flooding.

However, R.J. Harms, the project manager at Perry and Clinton lakes, disputes the neighborhood’s claim that the Corps made the flooding worse. He argues when the project office shut off the water release that morning, the water levels in its spillway still continued to rise.

He recently told the Journal-World that suggests the flooding actually occurred because rain water that landed in rural Douglas County — away from the lake — eventually flowed into the Wakarusa River and Washington Creek watersheds.

“If it drops 12 inches of rain (in that area), you’re going to flood, folks,” Harms said. “That’s God sending too much water behind your house.”

The difference in opinion on the issue has caused a rift between the flooded homeowners and the federal organization. Perryman and his neighbors don’t believe the project office is taking its share of responsibility in the flood.

Additionally, if no action is taken to address what they believe caused it, the neighborhood fears another massive flood could happen again — soon.

THE FLOOD

photo by: Contributed photo

Emergency personnel use rafts and boats to rescue residents in flooded homes in rural Douglas County on Aug. 1, 2019. The area received 8-10 inches of rain and severe flooding.

Perryman was not at his home when the water from Washington Creek began to surround his home on Aug. 1. He and his son left at 7 a.m. to go to a Lawrence health clinic, trying to get care for the boy’s illness.

But while they were in town, Perryman’s wife, Angela, called because she was worried about flooding as the water inched closer and closer to their home.

“By the time we got back, we were stopped by a (sheriff’s deputy),” Perryman said. “We couldn’t get to the driveway. We couldn’t get down the road because it was under water.”

With the southern portion of the neighborhood submerged by the floodwaters, emergency personnel needed to use a boat to rescue residents from their homes, including Angela Perryman and their daughter.

For the flooded homeowners, the event was not only terrifying but will also end up being extremely costly. The flood caused tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage, some of which will need to be paid out of pocket because most of the homeowners do not have flood insurance.

photo by: Contributed photo

Floodwaters cover a neighborhood street in front of Jeanie and Casey Vangemeren’s home in rural Douglas County on Aug. 1, 2019.

Gina Grigaitis, who lives directly east of the Perrymans, said she had to move all of her belongings from the lower level of her home — which includes a living room, a kitchen, dining room and her bedroom — to a higher level. She also noted that parts of the walls on the lower level were stripped out because they were damaged by dirt and water.

“Initially, it was so contaminated I didn’t want to be here,” Grigaitis said of her home.

photo by: Dylan Lysen

Part of the walls in the lower level of Gina Grigaitis’ home were stripped out because they were damaged by floodwater. Although frustrated by the situation, she joked the restroom no longer had any privacy.

Down the road, Jeanie and Casey Vangemeren are living out of an RV in their driveway while their home is being repaired. Casey said he’s lived at the location for years, and he’s never seen anything like this kind of flood.

“We’ve had 10 inches of rain before and didn’t get wet,” Vangemeren said. “I mean, it came out of the creek, but it didn’t reach our houses.”

Harms said the rainfall came at a bad time — beginning in the evening and stopping the next morning — because no one was in the office overnight. Additionally, he said the project office normally doesn’t shut down water release because of a weather forecast.

“We were aware of the potential was there (for heavy rain), but we chose not to do anything until it actually started coming,” he said. “Unfortunately it was over one night and the next morning it was on the ground and coming our way.”

Harms said when the project office employees got to work at 8 a.m. Aug. 1, they noticed the impact the rain was having and shut down the release of the water into the Wakarusa River “as fast as we could.”

When asked why the project office does not take weather forecasts into account, Harms said that the shutdowns are coordinated with the Corps’ Kansas City, Mo., division office, which must consider many creeks and rivers throughout a four-state region when choosing when to begin or shut down water releases.

“If there is a forecast of really heavy rain, we can contact them,” Harms said. But the project office did not do that on July 31, he said. “If we would have seen that heavy rain come at 2 in the afternoon, we would have called. Unfortunately it started that evening, after hours.”

However, Harms said once the release was shut down on Aug. 1, the water levels in the Wakarusa River continued to rise. While the homeowners believe having the Clinton Lake water in the river added to the flooding, Harms said the Corps’ inspection didn’t see it that way.

“With that flow continuing to rise throughout the day, our position is with our flow being shut off at 8 in the morning, it didn’t really contribute to that,” he said.

Additionally, Harms said there has been days since the Aug. 1 flood event where the project office was not releasing any water from the lake, yet the Wakarusa River’s water still began to increase quickly.

But Perryman said he doesn’t think the project office’s perspective on the issue accurately understands that water poured into the Wakarusa River from the lake could still be in the channel when the rain water starts to join it.

“To posit that such a significant and continuous volume of water, spilled unabated prior to and throughout the duration of a record rainfall, within a (finite channel), had no effect on surrounding flood conditions, regardless of consistent local anecdotal or documented evidence, does not follow,” Perryman said in an email.

photo by: Dylan Lysen

Jeanie and Casey Vangemeren sit outside the RV, which they are living in while they repair their home that was severely damaged in the Aug. 1 flooding.

ADDITIONAL CONCERNS WITH THE CORPS

Dennis Ward, who lives with his wife, Donna, directly to the west of the Perrymans, said he called the project office at 6:30 p.m. July 31, after the rain began to fall, asking them to close the water release. No one was in the office to answer and he left a message, he said.

“They called me back 8:30 the next morning — when we had (feet) of water in front of the house — and said there would be no chance Washington Creek would flood because they had closed the gates that morning,” Ward said, noting the neighbors then confronted the project office because of the flooding. “Then they said they didn’t do anything wrong.”

While the neighbors believe the project office is at fault, they mostly want to make sure another event does not occur again. But they fear the project office is not taking their concerns seriously.

Grigaitis, who has lived in her home for 22 years, said she doesn’t have assurance that she can get ahold of the project office to make sure they shut off the water release when flooding occurs. In the past, she said she could call the office and get someone on the phone, no matter what time it was.

However, that’s no longer the case.

Harms said the project office does not have a phone number for homeowners to call overnight to report emergencies. Instead, he advised the homeowners to call 911 or the Douglas County Emergency Management department. He said the department has the project office’s contact information for emergency situations, which the department confirmed to the Journal-World.

Grigaitis said the homeowners have tried that and they don’t feel like it was helpful because there appears to be a time delay while they wait for the two organizations to get in touch.

“We’ve done that and it doesn’t matter,” she said.

Additionally, the project office does not have overnight staff to watch the water release and gauge possible flooding in the area. When asked if he would consider hiring more staff or creating an overnight shift, Harms said that would be unlikely.

“The short answer is no,” he said. “We would never get approval to have a person stationed overnight to potentially answer distress or calls.”

The homeowners also want the Corps to install a gauge system on Washington Creek, which they believe would ensure the Clinton Lake Project Office has the most accurate reading of its water level. It currently uses a gauge that is situated downstream on the Wakarusa, near U.S. 59 Highway.

photo by: Dylan Lysen

Mike Perryman points to the level on a tree where the Aug. 1 floodwaters from Washington Creek reached behind his home in rural Douglas County. He said the creek water is normally very low.

Harms said installing another gauge would also be unlikely. He said they are not installed by the Corps, but the U.S. Geological Survey.

“The Corps partners with them by providing them money to maintain them, and the Corps then uses that information and data collected on those gauges,” he said. “That would be two agencies working together to install a gauge on Washington Creek when there’s one a quarter-mile downstream on U.S. 59 Highway.

“I don’t know if that would have any traction to put another gauge on there,” he added.

STALEMATE

Harms said he’s not sure any steps can be taken to make sure the flooding on Washington Creek doesn’t happen again.

“That’s what they’re after,” he said. “But how can you promise this won’t happen again? I can’t.”

Grigaitis said she’s frustrated with the lack of action, and she’s not sure what she and her neighbors can do next. While the homeowners considered legal action, she said a law office offered to look into the matter for $20,000, which they couldn’t afford.

“That was for them to tell us if we had a case,” she said. “We’ve pursued that and not gotten anywhere.”

photo by: Dylan Lysen

Gina Grigaitis, whose home flooded on Aug. 1, shows a Journal-World reporter how she moved much of her belongings to a higher level in the house while the lower level was damaged by flooding.

Harms said he informed the homeowners that they could file a tort claim through the federal government, which could result in financial compensation to the homeowners if the project office is found responsible.

Other than that, Grigaitis said she’ll consider reaching out to federal lawmakers. But without the project office considering some sort of policy change regarding the water release, adding another gauge or creating an effective method for residents to get ahold of them, she believes a flood will happen again.

“That’s our biggest fear,” she said. “I don’t want to go through this again.”


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