Councilors Told Haverhill Flooding Issues Made Worse by Drainage Maintenance Backlog

Police Chief and Emergency Management Director Robert P. Pistone points to damaged equipment at Progressive Roofing. Others, from left, are Deputy Police Chief Stephen J. Doherty, Senate President Karen E. Spilka and Progressive owner John Hostetter. (WHAV News photograph.)

Haverhill’s older sewer systems, worsened by a maintenance backlog, added to the overwhelming deluge of rain last month and contributed to significant damage to homes and businesses.

Public Works Director Robert E. Ward, responding to city councilors last week, said some areas that received significant flooding received relief when debris was removed that blocked drainage systems. He also admitted some problems probably could have been avoided or diminished with regular maintenance checks.

“Part of it is about maintenance—checking catch basins, culverts, drain lines, and clear or clean if needed,” he said.

Ward said not only is his crew out cleaning and clearing, but they hired an outside contractor which is in the process of cleaning 1,200 catch basins. He said longer range plans are in the works, such as an 11-year project to install a significant amount of new drainage.

Councilor Thomas J. Sullivan asked for an update on what is being done now to repair those issues as well as long-term plans to avert such crises in the future. “We definitely are concerned and we definitely understand that this is going to take a lot of time and a lot of effort and, most importantly, a lot of money but we need to know what the city is doing now to address this growing issue in the future,” he said.

Ward responded by explaining the large amount of rain in a very short period of time simply overloaded the city’s drainage system, much of which is fairly antiquated.

“All this infrastructure dates back to the late 1800s, so some of it is 100 plus years old,” he explained.

Ward also suggested the city should look hard at plans for further construction in the city, noting that whenever a natural environment is replaced by buildings and pavement, it alters the efficiency of the city’s drainage capability.

Adding insult to injury, the city recently received notice that despite those damages, Haverhill did not meet the criteria to be eligible to receive any federal disaster aid. The director, however, offered a bit of hope for those looking at some hefty bills to restore their property. He said he and Police Chief Robert P. Pistone, who also serves as the city’s emergency management director, are pursuing some other avenues of financial relief.

“Well, we didn’t get the money from FEMA-MEMA that we were hoping for. There are some potential grants out there. There’s a possibility of a BRIC (Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities) grant and it has the potential to be some pretty significant dollars.”

Pistone also reminded people the U.S. Small Business Administration has low interest loans and they are available to residents as well as businesses.

Council Vice President John A. Michitson floated the idea of the city creating some kind of reserve fund for potential problems in the future. “Do we want to create a reserve so that we can really help these people? I do understand the constraints that the city is under now. I think it’s something we should consider down the road,” he said.

One other suggestion came from Councilor Melissa J. Lewandowski who proposed referring the issue to the Natural Resources Committee with the intention of developing possible practices to avoid similar situations in the future. That proposal was passed by a unanimous 9-0 vote.

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