Finding a Way Forward on Flooding

September 18, 2023
• Needham learned that it would be on its own in dealing with the aftermath of the August 8th flooding.

At the meeting of the Select Board on September 12th, August 8th was still weighing heavily on people’s minds. In the public comment portion of the agenda they heard from residents frustrated with the town’s response, not only to this year’s event, but with drainage issues identified in the past. Some answers would come later in the agenda, as they heard a presentation on Stormwater Management related to the storm from the Department of Public Works.

Director Carys Lustig shared that the department has been extremely busy over the past month. They have been collecting data from the storm through the town’s See Click Fix portal, where she estimated that between 200 and 230 properties had reported being affected by the weather event. She shared with the board a map showing the areas where reports of damage came in from by both See Click Fix (in blue) and the Needham Fire Department (in pink). Lustig stated that the widespread nature of these reports was, in and of itself, revealing. “What this tells us is that the reason that those properties flooded was based on specific factors for that particular property–so either the orientation of the property, the design of the property, or maybe the drainage on that one specific property, and not necessarily an overall system surcharge.”

She shared that, through August 18th, they identified 43 neighborhoods where two or more properties had been affected, and the DPW has committed to setting up meetings with those neighbors. Her crews had also been inspecting the water and sewer lines throughout town using a closed circuit television system, but they had not identified any failures through those efforts. She did, however, disclose there was a small section of collapsed drainage and a sinkhole that was reported in early September, and were being remediated.

An area where the Department of Public Works has been struggling to keep up is more clerical in nature. Homeowners and their insurance companies have been putting in formal requests through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which has been taking up a lot of staff time, sometimes unnecessarily. She urged the public to contact the DPW directly before putting in a formal request. “We would gladly answer those questions, but the Freedom of Information Act requests that we are receiving are quite onerous, and they are causing town staff to spend a significant amount of time digging up records, or, to be honest, proving that there aren’t records, instead of necessarily working to remediate issues related to the flooding.”

Lustig also cautioned homeowners against looking to Needham’s 2002 Stormwater Report for answers on flooding and drainage issues. While some problematic areas were identified in that report, they were noted by town officials, not through the actual study, which had investigated the quality of the stormwater and not the capacity of the system. Looking to the future, the DPW is intending to generate a Stormwater Master Plan. They are looking to move the project up from their 2026 Capital Improvement Plan, but even there, there are no quick solutions, and no guarantees. “Even if we do a study, and even if we invest in all the repairs recommended by the study, flooding could still happen during these extreme weather events.”

“I wish we had better news,” Assistant Town Manager Katie King offered, as the Select Board turned to financial relief sought through the state. She updated the board on her communications with MEMA, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. The town had submitted the data gathered by the DPW through them on August 18th. At that time 134 residences and nine businesses had reported in. The goal was to get relief through two programs, the Federal Disaster Assistance program, run through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Disaster Loan Program of the US Small Business Administration.

At a meeting with MEMA on August 18th, the town learned that federal funds through FEMA were “unlikely”, as the damage received by the county and throughout Massachusetts on August 8th would not meet the FEMA threshold, and MEMA would not recommend further action on that front to Governor Maura Healy. A representative of the Small Business Administration did visit Needham on September 7th, and toured 43 properties. Of them, only 16 met their threshold, requiring damage greater than 40% of the Fair Market Value of the property. Since that time, the Town had been waiting on clarifications on what the next steps would be.

“And just prior to this meeting,” King shared with the Select Board. “MEMA confirmed to us that Norfolk County and Needham will not meet the SBA Loan Program thresholds.” While this news effectively exhausted all avenues for relief on the August 8th storm, the town is looking to generate a Toolkit that will help its residents secure flood insurance in the future. The DPW is also aggregating information on the improvements to the town stormwater system over recent years for a future report.

“While that would be helpful to see how much we’ve spent and what we’ve done, we obviously see where we are now,”said Select Board member Marcus Nelson. “So, having some kind of assistance or [to] try to establish something, if we can work on that…I think that would be beneficial. So, when these moments happen, and I know they are not going to not happen again, but hopefully we’re ready to assist if we can.”

You can watch the full presentation to the Select Board here.

The Town of Needham’s page for the August Storm event can be found here.

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