Posted on September 9, 2021
Ten years after record Susquehanna River flooding devastated West Pittston, the borough is pushing hard to secure $50 million for a levee.
“We’re trying to save this whole town. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but that’s what it is,” said borough council President Ellen Quinn. “We’ve got to get this levee.”
She spoke last week as intense rain once again put borough residents on high alert. There was subsequent elation after the borough dodged a bullet — this time.
Such false alarms stoke the always lingering memories of destruction a decade ago, Quinn said. She had nearly 4 feet of floodwater on the first floor of her York Avenue residence in 2011.
“I get very emotional. It takes me back 10 years, which was a very sad time for West Pittston.”
The 2011 flood caused $98 million in damage to 880 borough residences, 26 businesses, four churches and four other public buildings, records show.
New federal flood maps concluded an additional 300 homes should be added to the high-risk zone requiring flood insurance for properties carrying a mortgage, Quinn said.
In total, 1.13 miles of the borough fronts the river, she said.
Borough officials have met with a myriad of state and federal officials to pitch the project, and Quinn is optimistic some funding will be secured through the federal American Rescue Plan and a proposed new federal infrastructure package.
“I’m hoping with all the money that’s going to be available that we’ll be recipients,” Quinn said. “I think we are getting closer.”
The borough is on its own because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declined to initiate a levee under its umbrella. The federal agency determined in 2017 a levee around West Pittston did not meet the benefit-to-cost ratio warranting the investment, officials have said. The process to secure and complete a levee through the U.S. Army Corps also could take decades.
Using a $225,000 allocation from Luzerne County’s Community Development Office, the borough hired Wilkes-Barre-based Borton-Lawson to study all options, with help from sub-contractor Reilly Associates in Pittston and guidance from engineering consultant and borough resident Jim Brozena.
Unveiled in October 2019, the resulting report recommended the borough follow the example of Bloomsburg in Columbia County, which responded to a similar Army Corps rejection by rounding up private and public funding to build a levee there.
The proposed 1.6-mile levee in West Pittston would include stretches of both earth and concrete-capped sheet pile and range from 2 to 15 feet in height, the report said.
About 60 vacant parcels would have to be acquired on the river side of Susquehanna Avenue to make way for the levee, it said.
The new levee would meet Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requirements to comply with the National Flood Insurance Program to ensure property owners receive reduced flood insurance rates from levee protection, officials have said.
Another rejected study option — buying out and demolishing more than 900 flood-prone structures — could cost more than $150 million, it said.
Quinn said the borough already feels the loss of 28 homes that were torn down, mostly along Susquehanna Avenue, through buyouts. The borough must own and maintain the empty lots, and all three taxing bodies lose revenue that would have been generated, she said.
River island removal was not recommended because it would have minimal impact on flooding, the study said.
River dredging also is not be feasible because it would have to go down 30 feet and cost an estimated $300 million to provide the same protection as a proposed levee, the study said.
Without a levee, the borough “will continue to suffer economic losses, loss of employment base, and face potential loss of life due to recurring flood damages from the Susquehanna River,” the study said. It notes the borough also was impacted by river flooding in 1972, 1996, 2004, 2005 and 2006 and a river ice jam in 2018.
A levee could take four to five years after funding is secured, the study said.
“We need to begin it, because each day that passes is another day we lose,” Quinn said.
In the meantime, the borough has worked to reduce flood insurance premiums by implementing various floodplain management measures encouraged by the National Flood Insurance Program.
Early in the 2011 flood recovery phase, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had identified serious deficiencies in the borough’s implementation of National Flood Insurance Program requirements and placed the municipality on probation, a past release had said.
Borough officials worked with the federal agency to develop a long-term recovery plan that led to the creation of West Pittston Tomorrow. The subsequent demolition of flood-damaged properties, a new flood warning system and other measures helped return the borough to a positive standing in the flood insurance program, the release said.
For example, the borough partnered with the county Flood Protection Authority to install a river gauge on a pier of the Fort Jenkins Bridge for borough emergency responders to measure the river rise during flood events.
The borough also has worked on storm and sewage infrastructure, inventoried all properties in the floodplain, implemented a floodplain ordinance and retained a floodplain manager, Quinn said.
“There are many positive things that have come out, but what is still looming over us is that lack of a levee that we have to continue advocating for,” Quinn said.