MUSCLE SHOALS — Slightly more than 20 years ago, Muscle Shoals got a surprise city officials hope never to repeat.
On the morning of June 12, 1992, the skies opened and dropped 5 inches of rain in approximately 90 minutes on the saucer-shaped city.
The rain came so fast, portions of the mostly-flat city became covered because drainage systems couldn't handle the excess.
Millions of dollars have been allocated to build a pumping station and a retention pond, and to update existing retention ponds. Looking back through the years of expenditures, city officials said it has been money well spent.
And though some flash flooding still occurs in the city, it is nothing like the kind of flooding that swept through homes and business June 12, 1992.
On that day, heavy rains flooded 65 businesses and homes, causing 11 families to be evacuated, most from the hardest hit area near Southgate Mall, John R Street and Avalon Avenue.
The rain stopped, but the water stayed for several days.
William Osborn, the city's storm drainage director, who came on board shortly after the 1992 flood, said that day was the perfect storm of events to expose the city's susceptibility.
"Other towns go up and down hills and around curves and drain to the river," Osborn said. "Less than 1,000 feet of our city limits border the Tennessee River, so we are kind of landlocked.
"We are sitting here, stuck in the middle (of the Shoals) and we didn't have anywhere for our water to go," Osborn said.
Money, time and resources have been poured into flood control in Muscle Shoals in hopes of eliminating the chances of a repeat flood.
City Councilman Jim Holland, who was elected to the council in 1992, said soon after the new council and new mayor took office that year, they established a half-cent sales tax delegated for flood management and capital projects. The fund through the years has been used for matching money on grants to install and upgrade the city's flood-management system.
The tax still exists and is used to pay for minor flood-management projects, as well as funding other capital projects.
Flood control became a platform for the 1992 municipal elections, and when Charlie Mitchell took the mayor's office in the fall of that year, he came in with a plan to end flooding in Muscle Shoals, Osborn said.
That is when Osborn's department was created and the city began formulating a flood-control plan. The top items on that plan were to increase the size and number of retention ponds in the city and install a $13 million pumping station, Osborn said.
The city increased the size of its main retention pond on Buena Vista Avenue and added retention ponds on Brown Street and Sixth Street, as well as upgraded ponds on Wilson Dam Road and Broadway Street.
Holland said the project that likely provided the most flood protection was a two-phase expansion and upgrade of the Buena Vista pond. He said the city increased the volume of the pond and added a line to drain the pond to the river.
"The first year, we put a line item in the budget to do Phase 1, and the next year, we came back and did the same thing to finish the project," Holland said.
"The city just kept looking at the problem areas and put the money in the budget to get it fixed," Osborn added.
Holland said the city took over ownership of a retention pond built by property developers in the Nathan Estates neighborhood in March 2005.
In August of that year, after residents complained about the pond overflowing, the council approved approximately $500,000 for improvements.
Holland said the city had the pond dredged and put the proper slope on its sidewalls.
"It had gotten full a couple of times before we took it over, and there were floods and water in houses," Holland said. "But since we dredged it, there haven't been any flooding issues there."
The city now allocates $450,000 each year for storm drainage. Much of that money is earmarked for grass cutting throughout the city, but also funds regular maintenance to the pumping stations and vegetation removal from the sides and bottom of the retention ponds.
"There is not a day that passes that someone doesn't lay eyes on each of the pumping stations," Osborn said. "You can't wait until you need the pumps to know if they work."
There are still at least two areas in Muscle Shoals that are prone to flooding during heavy rains. One, on Woodward Avenue, is right in the heart of Muscle Shoals, but the city has no control over it because it is a state road. A portion of Woodward Avenue flooded when heavy rain pounded the Shoals for several hours Sept. 17. Officials recorded 3.09 inches of rainfall that day in Muscle Shoals alone.
One car was swept from Woodward Avenue and became submerged in water near Southgate Mall. In some instances the rainwater rose so high and so fast it flooded a few businesses.
Muscle Shoals Mayor David Bradford said the city was running all of its pumps at full speed that day but still couldn't keep up with the rainfall.
Osborn said a portion of Wilson Dam Highway holds water, but it typically takes just 20 to 30 minutes for the storm drains to catch up.
"You can flood anything," Osborn said. "But the way we have the flood management set up now, most of our pumping stations have a capacity to hold a 50-year flood event. The city has spent a lot of money, and we have spent a lot of time and resources to get it right."
Jennifer Edwards can be reached at 256-740-5754 or jennifer.edwards@TimesDaily.com.
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