A major flood can wreak havoc in a town in a matter of hours, but West Pittston is learning that getting a levee built will take years — if it ever happens.
Borough residents have been aching for a levee since record Susquehanna River flooding damaged more than 800 structures two years ago, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may soon begin the process required to make it happen.
The first step to obtain a levee is an initial assessment, which takes nine to 12 months, Army Corps Baltimore District spokeswoman Ashley W. Roberts said Wednesday.
Borough officials formally requested an assessment in June, and the Army Corps will include the $100,000 cost of this study in its 2014 federal budget request, Roberts said.
The assessment will look at water patterns and past flooding to help the Army Corps decide whether a feasibility study is warranted, Roberts said.
“It looks at the whole community and how flooding impacts the community,” she said.
If the assessment convinces the Army Corps to proceed, a feasibility study would be completed to identify the appropriate flood control system and project if the potential cost of damages in future floods would surpass construction costs, which is known as a “benefit cost ratio,” Roberts said.
A feasibility study takes 18 months to two years to complete, and the federal government equally splits the cost with the sponsor, which would be the borough, she said.
If that study results in a recommended levee, the federal government would cover 65 percent of the design and construction, while the sponsor must come up with the remaining 35 percent, she said.
Will cost millions
Cost estimates for a West Pittston levee have ranged from $13 million to more than $30 million.
Bob Russin, chairman of West Pittston Tomorrow’s levee committee, wants county, state and federal government leaders to rally behind the push for a levee, saying many promised to back the borough immediately after the record flooding.
He believes the benefit cost ratio would be in the borough’s favor but said the project should proceed regardless.
“We need our elected officials to play an active role because this is an injustice,” Russin said. “I think the survival of our whole town is dependent on a levee.”
He points to the county and federal government spending of $23 million on the River Common park in Wilkes-Barre, Wyoming Valley Levee portal openings and other recreational amenities in Wilkes-Barre for recreational purposes without a benefit cost ratio.
“They spent all that money to bring people back to the river. We in West Pittston had the river right in our living room,” Russin said.
Roberts said the benefit cost ratio is standard protocol for the Army Corps to proceed with a new levee or flood wall, and Congressional action would be required to proceed if the potential damages don’t exceed the expense.
“It is possible to not include the benefit cost ratio, but that’s not a call we at the Army Corps could make. Congress would have to get involved,” she said.
Russin said the Army Corps built a levee upstream in the Exeter area around Hicks Creek but left the low-lying West Pittston an unprotected bowl.
Some have blamed the borough’s removal from the original Wyoming Valley Levee plans on a group of residents who had objected to the loss of their river view, while others say the West Pittston portion of the project was dropped because the benefit cost ratio didn’t justify the expense.
Russin said these past decisions should have no bearing on a proposed borough levee today but stressed he has owned his Susquehanna Avenue home since 1985 and was never asked to provide input on a levee before September 2011.
He had 33 inches of water on the first floor of his house in 2011 and said he pays $4,500 per year for flood insurance that would cost only several hundred dollars annually in a levee-protected area.
The value of borough properties also has declined since 2011 due to the flood risk and high cost of flood insurance, he said.
The 64-year-old said he has somewhat obsessively monitored weather reports since the record flood to determine if his community is in danger.
“It’s always in the back of my mind. If we don’t get a levee, I can’t rest. That’s why I’m relentless,” he said.