Long slog back from disasters
BY DAVID SINGLETON
A year after driving rivers over their banks, stranding whole communities and emptying Northeast Pennsylvania’s second-largest city, the back-to-back disasters of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee still ripple through daily life.
Scores of flood victims anxiously await federal buyouts. Dozens more do not yet have permanent homes. Boroughs and townships still look for assistance to fix streets and bridges.
And recovery costs continue to creep upward – easily more than $100 million and counting just in Luzerne, Monroe, Susquehanna and Wyoming counties.
Steve Bekanich, Luzerne County’s emergency management coordinator, said it will probably be at least a year before things return to normal, although he acknowledged he was using the word loosely.
“If there is ever a normal again, that’s my best guess – another year before the signs of the flood are completely gone,” he said.
His hesitancy is a nod to the scope of the disaster.
The flooding associated with Tropical Storm Lee, which came less than two weeks after Irene bullied the region with flash flooding and high winds, shattered records established during the devastating floods brought about by Tropical Storm Agnes in June 1972. Agnes set the benchmark against which all other disasters are measured.
At Meshoppen in Wyoming County, the Susquehanna River crested on Sept. 8 at 44.48 feet, almost a foot above the Agnes level. The crest at Wilkes-Barre came the following day at 42.66 feet, 21 inches higher than in 1972.
Statewide, recovery costs associated with the two storms are at least $717 million, including $395 million in approved Federal Emergency Management Agency grants and U.S. Small Business Administration loans and $322 million in approved insurance claims, according to Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency figures.
By comparison, Agnes caused $2.1 billion in damage in Pennsylvania, including $1 billion in the Wyoming Valley alone. The big difference this time? Protected by levees that were raised to 44 feet after Agnes, 14,000 homes in the Wyoming Valley were spared the river’s wrath.
The PEMA numbers for Lee and Irene will not be the final tally, said Janet Kelley, deputy director of communications for Gov. Tom Corbett.
“These are claims and damages that have been submitted for approval for payment or a loan,” Kelley said of the $717 million. “It is anticipated additional funding will be approved for these disasters.”
In Northeast Pennsylvania, Luzerne and Wyoming counties bore the brunt of Irene and Lee’s fury and were included in the federal disaster declarations for both and Susquehanna County was part of the Lee declaration, and Monroe County part of the Irene disaster area.
Thanks to the influx of more than $50 million in FEMA grants and SBA loans – a figure that does not include millions more in payments through the government-sponsored National Flood Insurance Program – most of the 5,200-plus families and businesses in the four counties that suffered losses to Lee and Irene have made their fixes and moved on.
“I wouldn’t say their lives are totally back together, but they are recovering,” Wyoming County emergency management director Gene Dziak said. “Are they back in the position of where they were when the flood hit? Maybe and maybe not. Some are and some aren’t.”
As of last week, 10 families from Wyoming County whose homes were destroyed or heavily damaged were still living in FEMA-supplied temporary housing.
Across Luzerne, Wyoming and Susquehanna counties, more than 320 properties in flood-prone areas have been identified for possible acquisition through FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program in what will be one of the final pieces of the recovery puzzle.
Under the program, the owners of substantially damaged properties are paid pre-flood values for their homes, which are then demolished. The acquisitions are funded 75 percent by FEMA, with 22 percent coming from the state and 3 percent from local sources.
The vacant lots become the property of the local municipality with the requirement they remain open space in perpetuity.
In Wyoming County, where the EMA office is helping to coordinate the FEMA buyouts, Dziak recently pointed out some of the casualties as he drove along River Road in Exeter Twp.
Of the 63 properties in the first phase of the Wyoming County acquisitions, 10 are in Exeter Twp. Most of those are on or near River Road, where they cling to the western edge of the Susquehanna in the village of Falls.
In many cases, the properties have been in the same family for generations.
“I certainly respect people’s decisions for whatever reasons they have to take the acquisition or not take the acquisition, and I don’t know what I would do if I had to make that decision,” Dziak said as he passed one vacant home after another.
“A lot of people say, ‘Just get me the hell out of here.’ They have been hit four or five times, and this is not what they want to keep doing at this point in their lives.”
Not all of the prospective buyouts will happen, Dziak said. Some property owners will decide the government’s monetary offer is insufficient; others will simply have a change of heart and back out, which the EMA director they can do up until the time of closing.
“If we get 70 percent of what we started out with, we are going to consider that a good day,” Dziak said.
For municipalities where there are large numbers of buyouts, the acquisitions represent more than an altered landscape. Not only is the borough or township responsible for maintaining the land as open space, public ownership means the properties come off the tax rolls.
Dziak pointed out the 10 permanent homes slated for acquisition in Exeter Twp. compromise more than 3 percent of the tiny township’s year-around housing stock. The destruction of six to eight second homes or cottages, which are not eligible for the buyout program, will only add to the misery.
“It’s an issue – part of the tax base is gone,” Dziak said. “With these acquisitions, it’s going to put a burden and a hardship on the township.”
Any significant facet of the recovery that will be wrapping up in the coming months is public infrastructure repair.
So far, FEMA has released more than $20 million in public assistance funding to help counties and municipalities in Northeast Pennsylvania rebuild infrastructure, principally roads and bridges. As is the case with hazard mitigation, FEMA covers 75 percent of the public assistance costs.
“Public assistance is winding down and probably will be done in a month or so,” FEMA spokeswoman Josie Pritchard said. “That doesn’t mean the money will be out there in a month or so. It just means the project worksheets will be done and submitted. They have to go through the process of being approved.”
As those approvals come down, EMA officials expect the public assistance funding flowing into the region to rise accordingly.
Although figures FEMA show Wyoming County has received $3.4 million in public assistance, it does not accurately represent how much has been spent to restore infrastructure there, Dziak said.
For example, the reconstruction of Windy Valley Road, which was destroyed during the Irene flooding, cost in excess of $20 million, he said. Although the work was done in Wyoming County, the FEMA money for the project is going directly to the state Department of Transportation.
PennDOT estimates it will spend $31 million in Dunmore-based District 4-0, which includes Luzerne, Wyoming and Susquehanna counties, to repair damage caused by Lee and Irene, district press officer James May said. The estimate for the state in total is $120 million.
Dziak said one thing that sets the recovery from Irene and Lee apart from other disasters experienced by their counties has been the responsiveness of FEMA.
After flooding in Wyoming County in 2006, Dziak said his office was still waiting 18 months after the fact for FEMA to obligate funding for property acquisitions. This time around, the approvals started coming within eight months.
He likes to think it is the result of responders at all levels – local, county, state and federal – learning from their mistakes and building on their successes in past disasters.
“If you ever think you ran a disaster perfectly, you are a fool,” Dziak said. “When you walk away from a disaster – any disaster – you take what you’ve learned with you. Everybody has learned as disasters have happened how to do things better. I know we have.”