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Harlan Flood Control Project dedicated 20 years ago

NASHVILLE — Officials dedicated the Harlan Flood Control Project 20 years ago on Oct. 25, culminating over a decade undertaking to provide the maximum level of flood protection to the towns of Harlan, Baxter, Loyall and Rio Vista in Harlan County, Kentucky.

Dignitaries led by Congressman Hal Rogers, Kentucky 5th District, Joseph W. Westphal, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, Brig. Gen. Robert Griffin, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Great Lakes and Ohio River Division commander, local dignitaries, and Nashville District staff dedicated the project as part of Eastern Kentucky PRIDE Week events Oct. 25, 1999.

PRIDE stands for Personal Responsibility in a Desirable Environment, a program Rogers helped start in 1997 to promote environmental activities and to improve water quality and living conditions for residents.

In dedicating the $181 million project, which ironically took place during a period of extreme drought, Rogers declared victory to the citizens of Harlan County.

“Today after years of effort and millions of dollars we can now say that the work to keep the Cumberland River out of your homes, your businesses, your streets, your churches, is complete,” Rogers said.

Rogers supported the project in Harlan County from its beginning to its completion. He kicked off the historic project during a groundbreaking ceremony Oct. 9, 1989 on North Main Street in Harlan. He initiated a plunger signaling the ignition of several charges on the hillside to begin excavation to divert the flow of Clover Fork River around Harlan’s central business district.

Colonels James A. Ward, Ohio River Division commander, and James P. King, Nashville District commander, along with Harlan County Judge-Executive Delzinna Belcher, Harlan Mayor L.C. Howard and J.C. McDaniels, Upper Cumberland Area engineer for the Corps of Engineers, also participated in the groundbreaking.

“There are very few projects in the United States that match the sheer ingenuity and perseverance of the monumental Harlan Flood Control Project,” Rogers noted in a statement written in September 2019 about the 20 year anniversary of its completion.

“The responsibility rested upon our generation to find a life-saving solution to the deadly floods that ravaged families and businesses in Harlan County for generations. It required a multi-faceted, multi-million dollar response with a full decade of planning and execution. Trusted partnerships across every level of government were vital to our success, coupled with the tireless patience of local residents, and the brain trust of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to bring it to fruition. Now, 20 years later, as we reflect upon a project that ultimately rerouted the Cumberland River, it is with the utmost gratitude that we can rejoice in the unknown number of lives that have been saved and businesses that have been protected. Likewise, the Harlan Flood Control Project impacted every community downstream, reining in the mighty Cumberland through Pineville, Barbourville, and all the way to Williamsburg. It’s nearly impossible to imagine what the Cumberland Valley would look like today without the flood control projects in our region. We started paving a brighter future for Southern and Eastern Kentucky decades ago, and today the sun is shining brighter than ever before in the communities along our Appalachian riverbanks,” Rogers wrote.

The Corps of Engineers divided the work into three phases, stretching from mile 690.5 to 694.1 of the Cumberland River, mile 0 to mile 4 of the Clover Fork River, and mile 0 to mile 1.2 of Martins Fork River. Clover Fork, Martins Fork, and Poor Fork come together near Harlan to form the Cumberland River.

In phase one the Corps of Engineers constructed four 2,000-foot tunnels through Ivy Hill to divert flows from Clover Fork around Harlan’s central business district. About 600 people watched and cheered when the Corps diverted the water through the tunnels Sept. 21, 1992.

A report about the diversion of the Clover Fork River by Stony Merriman, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District Public Affairs chief, noted that one observer said, “Throughout history, only two men are known for moving great bodies of water: Moses and Congressman Hal Rogers.”

The Harlan Tunnels work included construction of bridges for Highways 38 and 72, and utility relocation.

In phase two the Corps of Engineers constructed a 4,000-foot flood wall adjacent to Highway 421 and Martins Fork at Harlan, Ky. Three highway floodgates, one railroad floodgate, and an 875-foot levee segment provided protection for rising waters. The Corps completed this phase of the work in September 1996.

“We’ve seen Harlan and Loyall saved from devastating floods over the last two decades thanks to the Army Corps of Engineers construction of the flood control project in Harlan County,” said Dan Mosley, Harlan County judge executive. “We see the flood walls and levees each time we drive through these communities but we don’t realize how thankful we are for them until Mother Nature strikes. I’ve seen multiple times how important this investment was. I am forever grateful to Congressman Hal Rogers for his vision in getting this funded years ago and know that this investment will continue to protect the people, homes, and businesses from the wrath of flooding for generations to come.”

In phase three the Corps of Engineers diverted a 3,800-foot stretch of the Cumberland River around the city of Loyall and constructed a 6,000-foot levee system to protect the cities of Loyall and Rio Vista. Bridges were constructed at Highways 840 and Park Street. The Corps also constructed a 2,000-foot flood wall, railroad track relocation, and two highway floodgates and one railroad floodgate upstream of Loyall.

The Harlan Flood Control Project included non-structural acquisition of real estate. The program raised individual homes and commercial establishments out of the floodplain, demolished and replaced structures or bought out owners for demolition. The project included a flood warning and emergency evacuation plan for Harlan County.

Wayne Huddleston, Nashville District’s project manager, who has since retired, said the Corps constructed the most cost-beneficial option that would reduce the most flood risk to the towns susceptible to flooding along the Cumberland River and its headwater streams.

He said the Corps had to overcome challenges and difficult hurdles with real estate acquisition, connecting sewer lines to homes along waterways, and funding complications associated with construction of a new regional sewage treatment plant. At that time, communities did not have adequate sanitary sewage systems or treatment plant to serve the region.

“Since the district doesn’t have authority to fund local projects, this decision rested with the chief of engineers. After significant coordination and documentation, we were given authority to transfer project funds to the sponsor, and the regional plant is now in operation,” Huddleston said.

Huddleston said there were significant engineering achievements, especially with the diversion of the Clover Fork and excavation of the Harlan Tunnels, but the work behind the scenes by the Nashville District Real Estate Office and other work centers really paved the way for the project’s success, and flood risk reduction benefits.

“In addition to providing flood protection in an area which had been routinely flooded and assisting in sanitary sewage improvements, our investment in the area was significant in building the local economy and promoting growth,” Huddleston stressed.

Today the Corps of Engineers continues to build and maintain relationships with the communities that own and operate the flood walls and levees that continue to reduce the risk of flooding in these communities that benefited from the Harlan Flood Control Project completed 20 years ago.

Park Ranger David Robinson has worked at nearby Martins Fork Lake in Smith, Ky., since 1996. He attended the completion ceremony in Loyall 20 years ago, and remembers Congressman Rogers promising Harlan would never flood again.

“Those words are still etched in my mind,” Robinson said. “And so far so good. Even with the high waters we had back in the spring, downtown stayed pretty dry and the levees did their job. The diversion tunnels diverted the water around Harlan.”

Robinson recalls a huge Corps of Engineers presence in the 1990s with construction, engineering, contracting and real estate personnel at offices in nearly every town. Two decades later he says only the projects remain, ready to be operated when flood waters rise.

“I think it is very interesting what they did to flood proof the city of Harlan,” he added.

Robinson said he now serves as a local point of contact, a conduit, a liaison between the Corps of Engineers and the towns that continue to operate and maintain these projects. It’s his responsibility to communicate with the Nashville District’s Levee Safety Program manager to coordinate annual visits to inspect the projects to ensure the flood protection systems continue to meet program guidelines.

There are some old timers who remember how massively awful the flood of 1977 was that flooded the city of Harlan and many other towns, so this project was a big deal to them. Young people in their 20s don’t remember much about it, Robinson emphasized.

“We’ve got the flood wall and diversion tunnels, and the people just accept these things as normal now,” Robinson said. “People don’t expect to be flooded now.”

That devastating flood spurred Congressional authorization for the project in Section 202 of the Energy and Water Development Act of 1981 to provide communities with a minimum 100-year flood protection.