NEWARK — The Licking County Commissioners agreed to take the lead on preparing a federal grant application to finally resolve many decades of flooding issues in southern Licking County and surrounding counties.
Two major goals for as much as $200 million in grant money will be raising the level of Interstate 70, especially around the Ohio 79 interchange, and improving the flood-prone South Fork of the Licking River, which overflowed its banks in Newark and Heath a year ago, forcing evacuations.
Logjams frequently block the South Fork of the Licking River, re-routing its flow near Hebron and threatening the eastern edge of the Newark Ohio Industrial Park.
The massive effort is expected to include the counties of Licking, Fairfield, Perry and Muskingum, the Ohio Department of Transportation, and possibly the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District, the South Fork Licking River Conservancy District, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Yaromir Steiner, vice chairman of the Buckeye Lake Region Corporation, and Kari Mackenbach, a former Licking County floodplain administer with engineering firm MS Consultants, asked the commissioners on Thursday to become the grant applicant.
“This is impacting not only our residents, but also our economy,” Steiner said. “We have been informed about this funding source by FEMA. We really think the counties should be participating. We’d like you to lead this effort.”
The grant application deadline is in September, but Steiner said it will be important to make a presentation to the Ohio Emergency Management Agency in March.
Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities is a new FEMA pre-disaster hazard mitigation program that replaces Pre-Disaster Mitigation program. The program will make $10.2 billion available nationwide, compared to $0.5 billion last year.
Mackenbach said work could begin in 2023 or 2024 if the grant is approved. About 80% of the project would be done in Licking County.
“We know the village of Hebron suffers from flooding and it affects the industrial parks,” Mackenbach said. “I don’t think we’ll see another (grant program) at this amount. Make hay while the sun shines. I know it will not be this high next year. The goal to get acknowledgement from Ohio EMA and get their support.”
Licking and Fairfield counties may contribute an initial $20,000 each to prepare for the March presentation.
Licking County Commissioner Tim Bubb said the improvements can’t be limited to the interstate, however.
“I-70 is a big deal, but the fix on the South Fork of the Licking River is a really big deal,” Bubb said. “That really has to be dealt with.”
In 2017, nearly three dozen people were evacuated from the Greenbriar Village neighborhood in Hebron after several days of heavy rain forced about 2 feet of water coming into the mobile home park. A blockage on the South Fork of the Licking River is partially to blame for the area being prone to flooding.
Bubb told Steiner the decision to pursue the grant money is an easy one.
“Everybody thinks this is a great idea,” Bubb said. “You’d have to be crazy not to think this is a great idea. We all get it. This makes sense. The potential investment here is kind of dwarfed by the potential benefit.
“If we don’t do this, some commissioners will be sitting here in the future, saying, ‘Why didn’t we grab this in 2021?'”
According to FEMA, the BRIC program aims to shift the federal focus away from reactive disaster spending and toward research-supported, proactive investment in community resilience. It states the projects should demonstrate innovative approaches to partnerships, such as shared funding mechanisms, and/or project design.