By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — People who own downtown property along the Merrimack River will avoid big hikes in their insurance rates.
Last night, City Council approved Mayor James Fiorentini’s request to borrow $6 million to repair and raise the downtown flood wall and renovate a 2,000-foot-long stretch of tunnel that guides Little River under the city center, emptying it into the Merrimack River.
But the mayor said he’s not sure how much of the $6 million the city will have to actually borrow for the federally-mandated flood-control project. He said he hopes to use some of the $4 million Haverhill recently received from the state for downtown improvements and that the city has also applied for a federal grant that would pay up to half of the city’s cost of the work. Haverhill expects to learn in January if it will receive the federal grant and how much of the state money it can use for the project, the mayor said.
Improving the flood wall is critical because federal officials have warned they will decertify the 76-year-old structure if the work isn’t done soon. Public Works Director Michael Stankovich said that would increase flood insurance rates for about 35 privately owned properties along the downtown stretch by an estimated $250,000 in total per year.
Repairing the flood wall will also allow the city to remain in a program through which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will pay to restore the wall if it is damaged in a natural disaster such as a severe flood or an earthquake.
The 2,200-foot-long flood wall is on the north side of the river, essentially between the Comeau and Basiliere bridges, and along Washington and Merrimack streets. It has protected downtown from being deluged by the Merrimack River since the 1936 flood, which left the business district under several feet of water.
Regulators had set a deadline of this month for repairing and raising the 30-foot-tall wall by two feet, but recently granted the city an extension, Fiorentini said. The wall begins below the river bed and stretches above the level of the river.
The flood-control project has several parts. It is expected to cost $1.2 million to repair and raise the wall, $2.4 million to renovate and clean the Little River conduit, and $1.4 million to repair the circa 1938 downtown pump station behind the Washington Square Post Office and buy three mobile pump stations. The city estimated the full cost of modernizing the existing pump station at $3 million, so officials decided to buy the mobile units instead. Councilors praised that decision because the mobile pump stations can also be used in other parts of the city in the event of major flooding beyond downtown. The 16-foot-high Little River tunnel is partially blocked with trees and other debris, officials said.
The final $1 million of the project budget is to be set aside for engineering and contingencies, in case unforeseen expenses arise.
Fiorentini said extending an existing boardwalk along the river is also part of the flood wall project, but he was unsure when that part of the work will happen.
”Improvements to the flood wall have been designed so that eventually a boardwalk could be placed on the flood wall,” Fiorentini said in a letter to councilors about the project.
The council approved the borrowing measure 6-0, with councilors William Ryan, Michael McGonagle and John Michitson absent.
Councilor William Macek said he believes it’s a waste of money to raise the flood wall because the river has not overflown the current structure since it was built 76 years ago. The mayor said he agrees the wall does not need to be raised, but he said federal regulators have insisted that happen.
”FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration) says raising the flood wall is a requirement and will protect us in a 100-year flood,’’ the mayor said. “With what happened with Hurricane Sandy and severe flooding in other parts of the country, it’s hard to argue against flood-control measures right now.”
The city hopes to borrow the money for the project from the state’s revolving loan fund at 2 percent interest. Annual payments on the loan will be made from the city budget and a small increase in sewer rates, the mayor said. Work on the flood wall is expected to begin in the spring.