By Donald Wittkowski
It is an area of Ocean City where even a small amount of rainfall can leave roadways flooded. In major storms, the surrounding neighborhoods are swamped.
But the notoriously flood-prone section of town between 26th and 34th streets is finally slated to receive some relief in the form of $4 million in roadway and drainage improvements.
Addressing about 150 residents during a town meeting Tuesday evening, Mayor Jay Gillian said the project is tentatively scheduled to begin in December, after construction contracts are awarded by the city. Completion is expected by Memorial Day, although parts of the multifaceted drainage work could continue beyond then, according to the consulting firm that is overseeing the designs.
“By December, I want to have shovels in the ground and get it done. We’ve been talking about it too long,” Gillian said amid a smattering of applause from the audience at the Howard S. Stainton Senior Center.
The mayor faced tough questions and some criticism from the crowd. Some residents complained that their flooding concerns are being ignored, others were skeptical whether the drainage improvements will even work and still others want the project expanded to include a larger area.
Gillian responded that he understood their frustration and accepted their criticism, but he stressed that the project should help to alleviate flooding in the neighborhoods between 26th and 34th streets.
“Regardless of where we start, you’re going to see improvements,” he said.
Gillian pointed to a 2014 drainage project in the city’s Merion Park neighborhood as proof that roadway improvements and new pumping stations can reduce flooding.
However, some residents were doubtful about the plans for 26th to 34th streets. One lifelong Ocean City resident, Chap Vail, criticized the proposed project as a “theoretical plan” that consists of little more than dumping flood water into the lagoons and bay instead of coming up with a more comprehensive strategy for solving the problem.
“It makes no sense at all,” said Vail, who lives on Bayland Avenue, one of the areas targeted for drainage upgrades.
The project’s boundaries are roughly 26th to 34th streets from West Avenue to Bay Avenue. It consists of three major parts, including repaving the streets, installing new pipes to replace some that are 40 to 60 years old and building four pumping stations.
The pumping stations, a crucial component of the plan, would help remove stormwater from the neighborhoods and channel it to drainage pipes leading to the bay.
The stations will be located at the lagoon end of Bayland Avenue, at 30th Street and Haven Avenue, at the end of 28th Street near the airport and at Bay Avenue by the airport.
Craig Wenger, senior associate at Michael Baker International, the consulting firm that is designing the project for the city, noted that the area between 26th and 34th streets is currently vulnerable to flooding even in run-of-the-mill rainstorms. In major storms, the tidal flooding can overwhelm the neighborhoods, he added.
“Once it gets over the bulkhead, it’s just like a bathtub,” he said.
Wenger said the proposed drainage and roadway project would help with most rainstorms. However, he stressed that it would not stop flooding unleashed by hurricanes or powerful nor’easters like the coastal storm Jonas last January.
Funding for the project would come from a nearly $19 million bond ordinance recently approved by City Council. The bulk of the ordinance will finance a series of roadway and drainage improvements in flood-prone neighborhoods throughout the city, including the north end of town.
“I’m doing everything I can. Council is doing everything it can,” Gillian said of citywide efforts to reduce flooding.
The mayor told the audience Tuesday that he would like to build even more drainage upgrades in the area of 26th to 34th streets, but funding is limited.
“I have to stay within the constraints of the money we have,” he said.
Gillian pledged to search for other sources of state or federal funding to help finance the project. He also expressed hope that construction bids would come in low enough to allow the city to expand the work.
Suzanne Hornick, chairwoman of a group called the Ocean City Flooding Committee, urged the mayor to find more funding. She said she wants to see a flood-prone block of 28th and 29th streets at Haven Avenue added to the project.
Hornick said the Ocean City Flooding Committee includes about 650 members, most of whom live in the area between 26th and 34th streets.
Although Hornick is disappointed that some parts of the surrounding area will be left out of the project, she believes the drainage plan will help to curtail flooding overall.
“We’re optimistic and hopeful it will get done soon,” she said in an interview.
The project, combined with other drainage upgrades in town, will allow the city to begin overhauling its aging and deteriorated infrastructure after years of neglect, Gillian explained.
“We’re spending a fortune on this stuff. We’ve got to do it,” he said. “I’m really serious. We’ve got to get it done.”