By the time the Kansas Turnpike Authority improves drainage culverts between Wichita and Emporia to help keep flooding off the interstate highway, it will be 13 years since a wall of water swept six travelers to their deaths in 2003.
Among those killed were a Liberty woman and her four children, who were on their way home from a wedding in Wichita.
And more than a year will have passed since flash flooding on July 10 sucked 21-year-old Zachary Clark to his death through a culvert that funnels a creek underneath the turnpike in a low spot in the Flint Hills.
Witnesses said Clark’s Ford Mustang, going about 5 mph under the 75 mph speed limit along with other traffic, hit about 10 inches of floodwater on the roadway. His car spun into the flooded ditch and was pulled into a deadly whirlpool.
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After the latest of the seven deaths, at two crossings about eight and 10 miles south of Emporia, the Turnpike Authority said it is spending $3 million to expand those culverts and others by the fall of 2016.
What’s not clear is why the agency didn’t act sooner.
Almost 12 years before Clark’s death, the Turnpike Authority identified the spot where he died as a “potential flooding area” that had “water over the road” two or three times by that point, according to memos The Wichita Eagle obtained from the agency.
And again, almost two years before his death, data compiled by the Turnpike Authority showed that water had been observed “overtopping” the roadway at the spots where the deaths have occurred, records show.
The Turnpike Authority and its engineering consultant knew eight months before the latest death that there was a “high risk” of the turnpike being flooded at five spots in a 16-mile stretch between the Matfield Green and Emporia exits, including the two fatality locations, according to Turnpike Authority reports.
Mike Alumbaugh, a 47-year-old Derby resident who was driving a few minutes behind Clark’s car the day Clark died, said last week: “I have questions about why it (the project to deal with flooding) wasn’t acted on prior to now, because that just seems like a really long period of time from one event to the next … from 2003 to this.”
Alumbaugh, who was on his way to see his teenage daughter perform with a choir in Topeka the day the floodwater stopped him on the turnpike, said the previous overtopping that the KTA knew about should have been disclosed to the public “so people are more cognizant of the danger.”
“If they knew about this, why didn’t they say something?
Somebody needs to be held accountable. The timeline just does not make sense for the type of project you are talking about and the fatalities that have been involved.
Mike Alumbaugh, who was driving behind Zachary Clark the day he died
“Somebody needs to be held accountable. The timeline just does not make sense for the type of project you are talking about and the fatalities that have been involved.”
Turnpike Authority spokeswoman Rachel Bell said she can’t say why the drainage culverts weren’t enlarged years earlier.
In a statement, Bell said: “It would be irresponsible for us to speculate on why prior leadership made the decisions it made. What I can tell you is that they made decisions based on the information they had available.
“When a leadership change occurred in July 2013, KTA took a broader look at drainage issues, which involved systemwide drainage analysis. Once today’s leadership had that information, we took action. KTA is now entering the third and final year of work on drainage improvements at mile markers 116 and 118 in the Flint Hills. We are pleased to report KTA will award the contract for construction of these drainage boxes before the end of the year. This has been an aggressive schedule, but KTA recognizes the importance of these improvements.”
The Turnpike Authority has been “working diligently for the last two years” on the project, Bell said. Construction is expected to begin next spring and finish around next fall.
Since Clark’s death, the Turnpike Authority has installed warning signs near the two culverts where the deaths have occurred, at mile markers 116 and 118. Alumbaugh said he is pleased to see the signs.
The project to expand the culverts has been methodical because there is extensive planning, design and permit work that had to be done before ground can be broken, Bell said. Weather limits when construction can be done, and there are environmental considerations, including protection of a minnow, the Topeka shiner, that lives in Flint Hills streams.
In an interview days after the July death, Turnpike Authority CEO Steve Hewitt said there have been plans for years to expand the culvert where Clark died. Hewitt was referring to planning that began about two years ago, Bell said. Hewitt became the Turnpike Authority CEO on Jan. 1.
The Mustang that Clark was driving floated, then disappeared into a whirlpool as stunned witnesses watched helplessly. Clark, entering his senior year at the University of Dallas, was returning to an internship with the Catholic Church in Minnesota.
3.5 million Number of vehicles traveling the toll road the month Zachary Clark died
236 miles Length of toll road
$33 million Amount of money the turnpike collected in tolls last summer
The same month he died, 3.5 million vehicles traveled the 236-mile toll road. It was the most traveled summer in the highway’s 60-year history. Summer toll collections exceeded $33 million.
After the 2003 flood, the Turnpike Authority did not enlarge the culverts to carry more water under the turnpike. Instead, it decided to install a stream monitor at mile marker 116 to alert staff members that the creek was rising.
In October 2003, almost 12 years before Clark’s death at mile marker 118, Turnpike Authority chief engineer Tom Wurdeman sent a memo titled “Stream Monitors” to then-CEO Michael Johnston about mile marker 118: “We’ve had water over the road here twice in 30 years. We did have water on the roadway on Aug. 30th when we flooded at Milepost 116” — where the six deaths in 2003 occurred.
The memo recommended that installing a flood monitoring device at mile marker 116, where Jacob Creek flows under the turnpike, “would cover this location” two miles away at mile marker 118. The culvert there drains a tributary of Jacob Creek.
Another memo that same month gave this caution: Because Jacob Creek could rise quickly, there would be very little time to respond.
36 minutes Time it took the water to rise from 3 to 9 feet in July event that killed Zachary Clark
30 minutes Time it took crews to arrive after the 9-foot trigger was reached
The day Clark died, the first alert at mile marker 116 activated at 4:09 p.m., showing the water had reached 3 feet in the culvert. At 4:17, the water level hit 6 feet. At 4:37, it reached 9 feet. Under turnpike policy, staff responds at the 9-foot warning. It took crews about 30 minutes to arrive at the scene. By then, Clark and his car had disappeared under the water.
What we saw in July is the water rising much faster than we knew in the past.
Rachel Bell, KTA spokeswoman
“What we saw in July is the water rising much faster than we knew in the past,” Bell said. “We’re learning from that. Absolutely it could change how we respond.”
Wurdeman, the former chief engineer who retired in 2005, said he couldn’t comment because of the possibility of litigation.
Johnston, the former turnpike CEO, said he didn’t recall any recommendation to enlarge the size of the culverts.
He recalled that he was stunned when he first learned of the devastating flooding at mile marker 116 in 2003. But as for mile marker 118, he said: “It certainly wasn’t a major issue at 118 (where Clark would later die) that evening (in 2003), if any issue at all.
“Were we stunned (by the deaths) and did we look hard at that situation then? Of course we did.
“I don’t recall anyone saying that you need to go up and replace those culverts.”
As for the turnpike’s current plans to improve the culverts, Johnston said: “I respect their prerogative.”
He said the Turnpike Authority did everything that needed to be done during his 18-year administration, from January 1995 to June 2013.
The Turnpike Authority installed a monitor at mile marker 116 after the 2003 deaths. It installed a second monitor at mile marker 118 after Clark’s death.
‘Overtopping … observed’
On Aug. 28, 2013, about two months after Johnston retired, the Turnpike Authority compiled data showing that “Overtopping has been observed” at four culverts in a 16-mile stretch, including mile markers 116 and 118.
On June 25, 2014, more than a year before the latest death, the Turnpike Authority’s engineering consultant, HNTB, submitted a report to the authority saying that of 112 culverts analyzed, eight “overtop the Turnpike at the 10-year event.” That is a flood with a 10 percent chance of happening in any given year.
Also, 40 of the 112 culverts analyzed “overtop the Turnpike at the 100-year event,” the report said. A 100-year storm has a 1 percent chance of happening in any year.
The Turnpike Authority says the culvert improvements that will be made next year are designed to keep water off the highway in a 100-year storm.
When the turnpike was built 60 years ago, its culverts were designed to protect against a 25-year flood, with a 4 percent chance of occurring.
For comparison, the 2003 flood that sent a wall of water over the turnpike at Jacob Creek was close to a 500-year flood event, a “super flood” that has only a 0.2 percent chance of happening in a year. Apparently there was no measurement after the flooding that killed Clark.
Two of five culverts singled out in the June 2014 report as being places where floodwater has been seen topping the turnpike were mile marker 116, where the 2003 deaths occurred, and mile marker 118, where Clark would later die.
Analysis at both locations showed “potential for significant overtopping of the turnpike … for storms above the 10-yr,” the report said. Both crossings sit where the “Turnpike is in a sump,” and both locations lie where water has nowhere to go. “There does not appear to be another route for bypass except over the Turnpike,” the report said.
A footnote said the five culverts singled out were “not an all-inclusive list of the areas where there is potential for overtopping of the Turnpike.”
The June 2014 report also said communicating the flood risk to travelers, with messages such as “Do not drive through high water on road” and “Be alert when storms are near” through variable message signs, radio and newsletters, will lessen the risk.
Increasing the size of culverts or adding culverts would also help keep flooding off the highway, the report said.
The study noted that a lot has changed since the turnpike was designed and built in the 1950s. Because of changes in methodology and accuracy since then, “on average, calculated runoff has doubled from the 1950s to today.”
Another issue the report mentioned: Median barriers installed to prevent head-on collisions can act like a dam and “back up water and increase the depth on the upstream side of the roadway.”
The Kansas Turnpike Authority has said it was planning for the drainage improvements at the high-risk areas when Clark died this past summer.
In March, HTNB, the engineering consultant, sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers saying the culvert improvement work at mile marker 116 “is necessary because a high risk of flooding has been identified” and because “overtopping has been observed” during past storms and that the project would “increase public safety.”
The consultant’s letter didn’t mention that six people died at the spot almost 12 years earlier: Melissa Rogers, 33, and her children, Makenah, 8, Zachery, 5, Nicholas, 3, and Alenah, 1. They were returning to Liberty from a wedding in Wichita. The sixth victim was Al Larsen, a 31-year-old from Fort Worth, Texas, who died helping to rescue motorists caught in the flooding.
The letter went out four months before Clark died.
These five-mile marker areas were identified by the KTA in November 2014 as having a high risk of flooding. The turnpike is installing signs and enlarging culverts that carry water under the turnpike.
MM 116.1: Jacob Creek, where deaths occurred in 2003
MM 118.2: a Jacob Creek tributary where a July 2015 death occurred
MM 101.9: Shaw Creek
MM 105.3: Sharpe’s Creek
MM 105.5: Sharpe’s Creek tributary
MM 180.9: Deer Creek/Lake Shawnee near Topeka