So what would downtown Williamsburg have looked like in recent days if the floodwall hadn’t been in place?
“I think we would have been riding a boat down Third Street taking pictures,” said Whitley County Emergency Management Director Danny Moses to this reporter’s question early Monday afternoon.
During the 1977 record flood in Williamsburg, this is exactly what some people did in the flooded downtown area. Williamsburg Mayor Roddy Harrison even recalls getting in trouble for boating in floodwaters as a youngster.
I imagine the scene was very similar in places like Harlan, Middlesboro, Pineville and Barbourville during that flood.
In recent days, flooding like this didn’t happen in several cities across southeastern Kentucky thanks to the efforts of local, state and federal officials with U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers being the most notable of those.
In 1981, during his first weekend in office, Rogers flew down the Cumberland River with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers asking them what could be done to protect towns from flooding, and then for a cost estimate.
“I did a double swallow. As a freshmen in the house, I realized that if this were to happen, it would take a long time and a lot of luck and a lot of hard work on a lot of people’s part, but I made the determination at that time that we might fail but the attempt was worth the effort,” Rogers said during the 1999 dedication ceremony for the Williamsburg flood wall.
The construction of Williamsburg’s floodwall is an interesting bit of history.
Harlan, Pineville and Barbourville got their floodwalls first.
When the Corps of Engineers finally came to Williamsburg and asked if the town was interested in a floodwall, then Mayor Marcella Mountjoy naturally said yes. Then Corps of Engineers officials asked a surprise question about whether Williamsburg could “share” the costs?
‘Share the costs? Everybody up stream got theirs for free,'” Mountjoy answered.
By the time flood control got to Williamsburg, Congress had changed the law requiring local communities to be cost sharing partners, which amounted to 5 percent of the project cost.
For the little town of Williamsburg, this ended up amounting to a little over $1 million, which in the 1990s was a considerable sum of money.
Town officials initially had no clue how they were going to get the money. Fortunately, Bob Arnold, who was the commissioner of the department of local government in Frankfort, came through helping secure the matching money from the state for the project along with 82nd Rep. Charlie Siler.
On May 1, 1995, ground was broken for the $22 million flood control project. A total of 4,945 feet of levees and 466 feet of floodwall was constructed.
None of the flood control projects along the Cumberland River were ever included in any president’s budget, either Republican or Democrat, and that funding for each project had to be line-itemed by Rogers into the budget.
“The dedication of Congressman Rogers is the reason it is here. Every time the Cumberland River gets up, everybody should give him a round of applause,” then Mayor Bill Nighbert added during the floodwall’s Aug. 23, 1999, dedication ceremony.
Harrison and others made an interesting observation at Monday night’s city council meeting that many people objected to construction of the floodwall at the time noting among other criticisms that it would be really ugly.
Fortunately Nighbert and the more than 20 city council members over the 13 years that the project was underway didn’t listen. Williamsburg’s floodwall kept much of the downtown from being extremely damaged from floodwaters in recent days, but the floodwall’s impact is much greater than that.
Would the University of the Cumberlands have invested $2 million in their Marketplace at 3rd and Main project if downtown Williamsburg were still in a flood plain? Would The Brick Oven have built a new restaurant along Main Street or would The Butcher’s Pub be building a restaurant there if their shared building were still in the flood plain?
To the leaders, who had the foresight for southeastern Kentucky’s flood control efforts more than 20 years ago, we say thank you.