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West Allis to beef up storm-water system

Sean Ryan
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A lot of people in West Allis get nervous when it starts to rain.

Sam Tourloukis is one of them. His brother, Kostas, owns a house on 82nd Street that has been flooded twice over the past two years by summer storms.

“It hurts,” he said. “It hurts because you have tenants and it’s a hardship. Every time it rains, you can’t sleep at night.”

The city flooded in June after five inches of rain fell in a little more than an hour. It marked the second summer flood in two years.

“It’s always on your mind,” said Joseph Burtch, assistant city engineer, whose department is studying ways to ease flooding. “When it’s raining really, really hard, there’s nothing you can do at the moment. You just wait it all out and see what happens.”

The city’s storm-water system is designed to handle a rainstorm that weather experts say should occur only once every five years, Burtch said. A once-in-a-decade storm will flood streets, but not houses, he said. But the 2008 and 2009 storms are only supposed to occur once a century.

“You could take all of the time to do a 100-year event and have a 200-year event come through,” Burtch said, “and then people will say your system failed.”

The public desire to spend money on flood-prevention projects comes only after floods, said Charles Melching, Marquette University professor of civil and environmental engineering. Public officials must strike when the water is high to get money for the projects before voter concerns dry up.

“It’s always reactionary,” Melching said. “You have a very limited window, because if you are not ready to react soon, well, you don’t want to raise taxes.”

West Allis’ options for flood control are limited because it cannot simply dump its storm water into an area river because somebody downstream would get flooded, Burtch said. The long-term solution probably is to build water storage containers, he said. And because West Allis lacks enough open land for storm-water ponds, the containers probably would have to be expensive underground units, he said.

“We’re studying all of the areas where we had the problems right now,” he said. “It’s kind of early to say what we’re going to be doing.”

The effort to prevent rainwater from pooling in low areas and flooding homes will begin next year with construction of a 60-inch diameter storm sewer. The new storm sewer will be in addition to the city’s 48-inch diameter storm sewer. The city will apply for a Wisconsin Department of Commerce grant to pay for the $675,000 project.

As West Allis tries to ease problems with future floods, the city is still helping to repair damage to the roughly 280 houses that flooded in 2008 and 2009. West Allis is offering construction loans to low-income residents whose houses were damaged, and the city is trying to buy some properties that are in flood-risk areas.

The city is moving forward with plans to acquire seven houses that flooded on 82nd Street, including Kostas Tourloukis’, said John Stibal, West Allis director of development. He said the city planners are considering a redevelopment involving the houses on 82nd Street and nearby sites of the former Mykonos Family Restaurant on Greenfield Avenue and former Milwaukee Gray Iron plant.

The combined properties would open up seven acres for a hotel, houses, office and possibly fast-food restaurants, Stibal said. The redevelopment must include a plan to deal with flooding, he said.

Sam Tourloukis said he and his brother can work out a deal to sell the property to the city. He said he looks forward to shedding the trepidation that comes with every heavy rain.

“It’s a little discouraging and at a point you just don’t want to deal with it,” he said. “And I’m glad.”

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