2018 floods offer lessons for Goshen’s future

On Feb. 21, 2018, Goshen Mayor Jeremy Stutsman woke up at 2 a.m. to a call from Dan Sink, the city’s fire chief. Several inches of rain had combined with weeks of snow melt, and the Elkhart River was engulfing a trailer park in Goshen’s north side. 

Within 24 hours the river rose nine feet, inundating the Kroger Grocery, Linway Plaza and homes on Denver Avenue and Huron Street. Sections of Pike Street, Lincoln Avenue, Plymouth Avenue were submerged, as were four of the city’s five bridges. 

“The city was cut in half,” Stutsman said.

The emergency response team, made up of six department heads, set up a makeshift office in city hall where they spent 98 hours over the next three days to coordinate the city’s response.

Goshen firefighters went door to door in the flooded areas to rescue residents from their homes. Most people were asleep without any idea that the river was inside their home, said Mike Happer, assistant fire chief. The team moved over 40 people to higher ground using rescue boats. 

Stutsman, who holds a bachelor’s degree in biology, is quick to acknowledge that climate change exacerbates severe weather. “We’re just going to see more and more,” he said. 

Scientists from the U.S. Global Change Research Program agree. In the 2018 National Climate Assessment, scientists reported that annual precipitation in the Midwest has increased by up to since the first half of the 20th century. Heavily concentrated rain events have also increased since 1901 and are projected to increase into the 21st century.  

Rainfall in the winter and spring, which are important factors in flood-risk, are projected to  increase by up to 30 percent by the end of the 21st century. 

In Indiana, more flooding in Indiana will come from an increase in the proportion of precipitation that falls as rain instead of snow, and greater extreme localized precipitation, the report said. 

According to the Indiana Climate Change Impacts Assessment, almost three-fourths of all precipitation that falls in northern Indiana will be rain instead of snow, under a high emissions scenario. 

These changes will lead to more floods and more severe floods, which have a variety of impacts on human health. 

Flooded buildings often harbor the growth of mold spores, which can trigger asthma and allergic reactions. Heavy rain events can transport pathogens like E. Coli from agricultural runoff and, in some cases, city sewage. 

The mental health toll of flooding events can vary from loss of sleep, stress and anxiety to depression and PTSD. 

Only weeks ago, in late March, flood waters in Franklin County, Indiana toppled a bridge, sweeping cars off the road and resulting in six deaths.

The EPA has estimated that the Midwest is among the regions with the largest expected damages to infrastructure, including the highest estimated damages to roads, rising from $3.3 billion per year in 2050 to $6 billion per year in 2090 in a high-emissions scenario. The Midwest was also found to have the highest number of vulnerable bridges compared to other U.S. regions.  

Despite the threat, documented implementation of climate change planning and action in Midwestern cities and rural communities remains low. In 2015, only four counties and cities in the region had created formal climate adaptation plans, none of which had been implemented even three years later, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment. 

When the Elkhart River surged in 2018, Goshen City officials worked hard to manage the crisis, and their efforts saw results. Nobody died. Several statewide agencies, including Kiwanis International, reached out to congratulate the city on its response to the flooding. City employees also received candy and gift cards from local businesses including the Nut Shoppe and the Electric Brew as thanks for their emergency response, according to Dustin Saylor, director of public works. 

Nonetheless, the city made some adjustments to their response and continues to seek more information about what flooding in Goshen will look like and how the city can be best prepared.

Goshen Street and Utility department workers keep a close eye on water levels, Stutsman said. The emergency response in a flood situation would look much the same, but communication is quicker now. 

In May 2019, as soon as weather forecasters began projecting back-to-back days of more than an inch of rain, Stutsman was on the phone with businesses in the floodplain, telling them to stay alert.  

Stutsman also said the city is trying to get “as much data as possible” about the city’s risk and response to flooding. 

Last year, the city applied for and received a grant from the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences Association. GLISA compiled a “complete study” of Goshen’s flood risk, which the city is adding to its Geographic Information Systems maps, Stutsman said. The results of the study will be made available to the public after its final review. 

Green infrastructure like rain gardens, landscape elements and trees help communities become more resilient. According to the National Climate Assessment, those elements slow runoff into sewer systems and help rainwater infiltrate into the soil after heavy rains. 

In Goshen, a tree inventory compiled by the parks department found that the city’s 14,000 trees are responsible for diverting nearly 16 million gallons of rain from the storm water system each year, resulting in an estimated $432,500 in savings from avoided infrastructure repair and water treatment. 

Since 2016, the environmental nonprofit Earth Charter Indiana has invited mayors from all over Indiana to its annual climate leadership summits. In September, Stutsman brought the fourth annual summit to Goshen.

At the summit, scientists from around the state presented the latest analysis and projections for climate impacts in Indiana. 

Stutsman said the presentations made him realize the need to understand where the City currently stands in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. “We need to know benchmarks,” he said, so the city can be sure its investments pay off. 

“I want to avoid feel-good projects,” Stutsman said — the kinds of projects that use buzzwords and look great but don’t have a measurable impact on anyone’s well-being. 

Last year, high school students from the Goshen Youth Caucus worked with city council members to pass an environmental resolution stating support for action on environmental issues. Months later, the council passed an ordinance to create a new department: the department of environmental resilience. 

Headed by Aaron Kingsley, city forester, the new department has been tasked with charting the city’s course away from reliance on fossil fuels. The new department “won’t put Goshen on that path,” Kingsley said. “It takes all the departments, all the people to get on that path,” but the department of environmental resilience can define what that path might look like. 

Stutsman said one the main goals of bringing the conference to Goshen was to help all council members and officials hear the same message about the impacts of climate change in the Midwest. 

“The whole environmental discussion — climate change — is very political,” Stutsman said. After years of work with a city council that doesn’t always agree on the legitimacy of human-caused climate change, his approach to climate action has shifted.

Stutsman said he’s stopped “worrying about getting people to believe in climate change,” and instead focused on showing everyone what they have to gain from collaborating on climate action. 

“We need to stop trying to get people on board, but give them a reason to jump on board,” he said.

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Written by Gabe Miller, News Editor

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