WILKES-BARRE — Joyce Zaykowski, Wilkes-Barre City’s director of the office of community development, put the situation in perspective at Monday’s roundtable discussion with U.S. Sen. Bob Casey on flood protection.
“With the high cost of flood insurance, people can’t afford to live in their homes and they can’t sell them and we can’t protect them,” Zaykowski said.
Casey, D-Scranton, assembled several municipal, county and state officials at the Luzerne County Emergency Management Agency on Water Street to discuss Pennsylvania’s aging infrastructure that is put to the test every time there is a severe weather situation.
And Casey noted that many of the hardest hit communities are located in the northeastern region, near the Susquehanna River, which tends to be the most flood-prone part of the Commonwealth.
To ensure that local officials have the resources they need for road, bridge and dam upkeep, Casey convened what he called an “infrastructure summit” to discuss the region’s most pressing issues.
The summit comes as the Trump Administration has yet to put forth a comprehensive plan to address the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and has proposed a budget that would slash funding for a number of federal programs aimed at rebuilding and investing in communities.
Casey said he hopes Congress can pass an “all-in” infrastructure bill. He called it “a good old American investment.”
In addition to Zaykowski and Casey, others attending the summit were: Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tony George, West Pittston Mayor Tom Blaskiewicz, Wilkes-Barre Police Chief Marcella Lendacky, Wilkes-Barre Fire Chief Jay Delaney, Tim McGinley, Chairman, Luzerne County Council, Ellen Quinn, West Pittston council resident, Cassandra Coleman, Regional Director, Office of Gov. Tom Wolf, David Palermo, chief of staff, State Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, Laura Holbrook, mitigation specialist, Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority, Lucy Morgan, Luzerne County EMA director, and Jim Brozena, Brozena Consulting.
Flood insurance concerns
Brozena noted that West Pittston is unique in that there is no higher ground for property owners along the river to relocate to. He said there has been some discussion on doing elevations to 10 to 12 historic homes, many in the Susquehanna Avenue area.
West Pittston is not protected by the Luzerne County levee system and is vulnerable to frequent flooding. The town was devastated in 2011. A study done years ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined that the value of the area to be protected did not justify the cost to build levees in West Pittston.
Blaskiewicz and Quinn argued that flood insurance costs are rising at an alarming rate. They said they are concerned that people will be moving out and the town’s tax base will be significantly lowered. Quinn said property values are decreasing as well, making it difficult for owners to sell their properties at fair prices.
“I’m sad for our town,” Quinn said. “If we raze the homes, our tax base is reduced. And flood insurance cost is $5,000 to $6,000 per year.”
Blaskiewicz added that if the homes are taken and razed, then maintenance of the properties falls on the borough — a cost that would be difficult to absorb.
“West Pittston needs protection,” Blaskiewicz said. “If not a levee, then what else could be done to protect the town?”
City, county have issues
George, Delaney, Zaykowski and Wampole bombarded Casey with concerns. Delaney said the city was faced with keeping key streets open during last year’s major snow storm.
“We had to get streets open to allow doctors and other emergency personnel to get to work,” Delaney said. “Yet when we seek reimbursement, we are subjected to FEMA’s rule that a state threshold must be met.”
Delaney said the city had to dip into its funds to pay for the $1 million in necessary costs that were incurred.
“The mayor then had to make that up somewhere,” Delaney said.
Wampole echoed Zaykowski’s comments that flood insurance premiums are going up at an alarming rate, making it difficult for property owners to afford. He said the properties can’t be sold and there is little flood protection.
Casey said he will review all the information he received at the summit and continue his push for a major infrastructure bill.
Morgan said she wants to see more funding for training for emergency personnel. She said only $18,000 is allocated statewide for the training. Morgan said most responders are volunteers and need the training.
“Something substantial could have an impact,” Casey said. “We have tom look at that benefit/cost ratio and find another way. And we have to get to work on getting the cost of flood insurance down.”
Brozena said since the 2011 flooding, many of the unprotected areas have seen a lot of properties purchased by FEMA. He cited 75 properties in Shickshinny, 50-plus in Plymouth Township and several in Jenkins Township that have been purchased and razed. Brozena said those purchases could have some effect on lowering premium costs because the risk of damage is lessened.
McGinley said federal regulations are very difficult to meet.
“We all need help,” McGinley said. “We need the federal and state governments to look at our situation and provide the funding we need.”