BY KELSEY RYAN
When it rains, it pours.
And in some parts of Wichita, it floods.
The terrain and older infrastructure in certain parts of town are to blame, city officials say.
“When we get some of these rains like we do when it just comes down so hard, there’s nothing you can do. The system just gets overwhelmed sometimes. So it’s best not to drive through it,” said Jim Hardesty, the city’s interim stormwater division manager.
“Wichita’s terrain is pretty flat and water doesn’t move real quickly anyway. We do try to keep on top of it.”
When Wichita gets the kind of rain it has had for the past week, city crews are deployed to known problem areas to clean inlets clogged with debris.
The city also has crews that clean inlets and storm conduits on a regular basis, regardless of whether it’s raining.
How much rain is the system designed to handle?
“It’s not something you can put a number on. You do the best you can with the old infrastructure that we have,” Hardesty said.
“Given time, it will drain.”
Here are some of the top problem spots for flooding, according to Hardesty:
1. Bleckley Drain
Video and photos have shown the rainwater on Bleckley, north of Kellogg and East of Oliver.
Signs in the area warn people to “Turn around don’t drown.”
Sometimes referred to as “River Bleckley” by those who live there, the area has been prone to flooding for decades.
With downpours last week, teachers at Robinson Middle School had to be driven to lunch by a school bus during their inservice day.
“Basically we couldn’t get out,” said Amy Champlin, Robinson Middle School principal, who keeps rain boots in her trunk.
“We’re were very thankful it wasn’t a school day and we didn’t have 800 kids to be dropped off or picked up, because it’s a safety issue.”
Last week, one teacher who went out to move her car off of Bleckley had water to her knee as she stepped off the curb.
The water, which sometimes goes above the sidewalk, has a current. They often see debris floating by.
“It gets deep and it runs fast,” Champlin said.
2. Maple and Meridian
At Maple and Meridian, moderate rains cause the area to flood quickly.
“Everybody still tries to drive through it,” said Beth Mills, who works at Another Heating and Air Co. at 2419 W. Maple.
Drivers will take turns passing each other once it starts flooding.
“Along Meridian, there’s a peak in the middle of the street clear enough for cars to drive though straight down the middle, trying to pass from both directions,” she said.
It’s clear the drains aren’t adequate for the rainfall, and she thinks debris quickly builds up in the gutters.
Melissa Ashby, the office manager and Another Heating and Air, says she thinks people can’t see the flooding soon enough.
“You don’t know how deep it is until you’re in it,” Ashby said.
3. Meridian and Harry
Just down the street on South Meridian, city crews are widening the street and installing larger storm conduits, a project that is expected to alleviate some of the localized flooding there.
White Lightning Liquor sits at 1620 S. Meridian, right in the middle of the construction.
“When they complete the project we won’t have a flooding problem,” said owner Andy White.
The area has flooded for as long as he can remember. He started working at the store in the 1980s.
People used to get stalled a lot, he said, but they’re already seeing improvements with the ongoing construction.
Construction started in January and isn’t estimated to be complete for another year. It has reduced his business, White said.
“We’ll survive it. … When it’s complete there will be a lot more traffic and I’ll be happy, but it’s progress,” he said.
He hopes the changes will also improve the quality of the road, which he said has been riddled with potholes, making navigating it “like riding a bull.”
Flooding in downtown has caused some special problems for developers. The buildings are some of the oldest in Wichita, and they have older storm drain infrastructure.
Jason Van Sickle, president of the Old Town Association and developer on the Flats 324 complex, said his team ran into flooding issues when renovating the building into a 140-unit apartment complex.
Multiple units would flood every time there was a major storm.
“The water could not get drawn away from area fast enough because of the old drainage system,” he said.
They discovered that a storm pipe behind the building was so old that it had collapsed.
When they built an addition to the apartments, the developers paid to replace the storm drain pipe, since it wasn’t slated to be fixed by the city for several years, Van Sickle said.
It’s working much better, but because it feeds into a small and overwhelmed system, he said, it’s like “putting a big straw on top of a smaller straw.”
Downtown differs from new developments that have higher standards for drainage with things like retention ponds and slight grades in the terrain, he said.
There’s also a lack of grass and green space to absorb all that water downtown.
“Everything runs somewhere,” he said.
As the city works to slowly replace the infrastructure, people will have to be patient.
“It’s a massive undertaking to dig up roads and replace pipes,” he said.
5. College Hill
College Hill is one of Wichita’s oldest neighborhoods. Old neighborhoods mean old infrastructure. So some streets in College Hill are prone to flooding.
“I get a river across my street,” said Celia Gorlich, president of the College Hill Neighborhood Association. “We have a lot of places that when there’s a driving rain or hard rain, it really creates gigantic pools of water.”
Luckily, there aren’t as many people driving through the neighborhoods as some other parts of town that see flooding, she said, so it doesn’t create as much of a traffic problem.
Gorlich, who lives south of Douglas and about a block north of Kellogg, said the water flows south on her street toward newer storm drains by the highway. She remembers one time about 20 years ago when she couldn’t get to her home because the flooding was so bad.
Some College Hill basements flood, possibly because of their age and the high clay content of the soil.
“Old houses are better built than newer ones, but basements seem to give away and crack a bit with age,” Gorlich said.