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Building rising at casino site despite early flooding concerns

A $400 million gambling complex that will house a "world-class" casino is rising along Baltimore's Russell Street — land that until last year was barred from construction because of the risk of flooding.

City officials' high hopes for casino revenue and jobs from the 3.5-acre site were almost dashed when the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued a map in 2009 that put the property in a "floodway," the area where floodwaters rush the fastest and deepest. Federal law forbids most construction in floodways.

The city's solution? Get a new map. The Baltimore Development Corp. paid a consulting firm $30,000 to re-evaluate the land and file an appeal. The city won and a new federal map was adopted last year, allowing the casino project to go forward.

"That whole swath of land became floodway all of a sudden, and we were like, 'Holy cow,'" recalled Kenneth Hranicky, flood plain manager at the Baltimore Planning Department.

In deciding to appeal, Hranicky said, officials concluded that "the science behind [flood maps] is not necessarily the best science. It's the science you can afford."

Independent engineering experts interviewed by The Baltimore Sun said they saw nothing out of the ordinary with the revised flood map or the city's decision to appeal. The science behind flood maps — which are meant to project the worst flood in a century — isn't absolute and can vary based on changes to models, topography and assumptions, the experts said.

"The truth is, the 100-year flood map is really somebody's best estimate," said Andrew Miller, a professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "The 100-year flood is a moving target. You've got so many variables."

Construction of the Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, being developed by a group led by Caesars Entertainment, is slightly ahead of pace for a 2014 opening, officials said. Columns of concrete jut up from the ground next to signs that say, "Moderation Is Overrated." The casino complex is projected to create 1,700 permanent jobs and spin off $213 million a year in state and local taxes.

Going back to the administration of Mayor Sheila Dixon, the vacant city-owned site has been the preferred location for a casino for many reasons, including its proximity to Interstate 95. Although no longer classified as a floodway, the casino site remains in a flood plain — land at risk of flooding, but where some development is permitted. Caesars officials say they're taking steps to make sure that flooding won't be an issue.

"The inside interior will be up four feet," said Chad Barnhill, general manager of Horseshoe Casino Baltimore.

Greg Combs, an engineer overseeing the construction, said it's simply a matter of following the rules. "You stick to the regulations and build as directed," he said. "There are regulations you're required to follow when you build in these areas."

Kim Clark, executive vice president with the BDC, said the corporation paid a consultant for a more refined study "because we questioned some of the things that were in the preliminary maps and ... we have several large employers that were affected by the preliminary maps." She said the expansion of the nearby Greyhound bus station also would have been prohibited.

She said the city's decision to appeal was based on science, not economics, and that federal officials would have denied the challenge if they felt the floodway designation should remain unchanged.

"I didn't really expect to get anywhere, but our consultants really worked hard at it," Clark said. "Everything that was done was justifiable."

EA Engineering, Science and Technology Inc., the company hired to conduct the study, did a split-flow analysis, which measures where stream water flows when it breaches the riverbank during floods.

The company found that the water leaves the channel and flows overland directly into the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River — meaning the casino would not be in the floodway.

"And they were able to, I'll just say, make the map more favorable for the city," Hranicky said.

The split-flow condition determined by the city's consultants was not reflected on the preliminary maps because the information used to generate those maps was collected in a 1978 study, one that included only field surveys and topographic maps, according to a FEMA letter.

So instead of reflecting a floodway that is actually 400 feet wide, the proposed maps showed a floodway roughly seven times that.

"A lot of things have changed since the 1970s [when the flood maps were first prepared]," said Charles Melching, a civil engineer and professor of engineering at Marquette University. "We have nearly 40 years more flood and rainfall data, and we have far more powerful computer tools to use in analyzing flooding and the flood plain [or] floodway."

In December 2010, the appeal was granted by FEMA and the maps were revised. They were officially adopted in February 2012.

Terry Hull, principal engineer at the consulting firm INTERA, said the new map shows a "completely revised area."

"You could certainly make an argument that it could be a floodway," Hull said of the casino site. "But the old floodway map may very well be unrealistic. ... Could this structure exacerbate flooding in the area? It's possible, but as FEMA has shown it's not in the 100-year floodway."

Miller, of UMBC, said he'd worry less about flooding at the casino than in other areas near the harbor, such as Harbor East.

"The casino is the least of our problems," he said. "There's a risk, but we accept those kinds of risks any time we build a city in a costal zone."

Natalie Kornicks is a reporter for the Capital News Service. Sandra Mueller of the news service contributed to this article.

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