WILKES-BARRE — If the height of the levee in Wilkes-Barre and Plymouth isn’t increased by about a foot, it’s possible that flood plain residents in those communities could be at a greater flood risk and see flood insurance rates rise in a few years.
That was one of the findings of a report that officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency discussed Monday night at Wilkes University.
Another meeting is scheduled for 6:30 tonight at the Educational Conference Center at Luzerne County Community College in Nanticoke.
Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority Executive Director Chris Belleman invited the officials to provide an update on the Wyoming Valley Levee Project to the community after the authority was notified of findings of an analysis that the Corps of Engineers conducted on the levee following flooding that occurred after Tropical Storms Lee and Irene in September 2011.
“They looked at a length of river from Sunbury up to the border with Lackawanna County and found that in some areas, the base flood elevation is going to change anywhere from 1 to 4 feet. That’s significant. That changes everything,” Belleman said.
“Once they had this information and … confirmed it, it would have been malpractice to not give this information to the public so they could make the appropriate decisions to how they conduct their lives, where they live and so forth,” he said.
Col. Trey Jordan, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District, said the levee is doing its job and has saved more than $7.5 billion in property damage since it was constructed. But, he said, “a couple of things have changed since it was designed and built.”
“If you haven’t heard, climate change is happening out there. A lot of people differ in their opinions of what that means. But statistically, the floods have grown in greater magnitude and greater frequency. And that potentially means that 100-year storm of the past is now no longer the 100-year storm, and you’re potentially facing a much larger (flooding) event,” Jordan said.
Harvey Johnson, chief of the Corps of Engineers Baltimore District’s Civil Works Branch, provided details on those changes, noting that in addition to greater magnitude and frequency of storms, there also is more storm water runoff into the river because of increased development.
There is also more sedimentation being deposited into the river, more vegetation (trees), and structures (bridges and levees), which all cause the water to rise higher than in the past, Johnson said.
He said water flow in the river for a 100-year storm increased from about 254,000 cubic feet per minute in the 1990s to about 293,000 cubic feet per minute in 2013 — a 13-percent increase.
The Corps of Engineers determined that the extra 3-foot protection level of the top of the levee, referred to as a “freeboard,” now only provides about 2.1 feet of extra protection in the Wilkes-Barre and Plymouth sections.
That means FEMA accreditation for those sections dropped to a lower level. That could result in higher risk designation for those communities, said Gene Gruber, Mitigation Division director for FEMA Region III.
That will not affect current Flood Insurance Rate Maps, Gruber said. But, it could affect maps that are scheduled to be updated in 2018. He said there will be plenty of opportunity for community input prior to that taking place.
During a question-and-answer session, Wilkes-Barre Councilman George Brown asked if there was any emergency funding available to repair the walls of Solomon Creek because residents in the neighborhood must be evacuated during flooding events on a greater frequency.
He was the a local sponsor must sign a letter of intent to provide a 25-percent match if the Corps is to secure funding for the project.
Belleman said the project was projected to cost $50 million 12 years ago.
Judy Aita, president of West Pittston Tomorrow — a group committed to rebuilding that borough following massive flood-related destruction in 2011, pelted officials with questions about getting the community protected with a levee.
Aita said it appeared officials were saying that the town isn’t worth saving based on a cost analysis guidelines that say a levee must save $1 in property damage for every $1 it costs to build a levee.
Corps officials said they are waiting on Congressional approval for funding to do a new cost analysis on levee protection for the town.