WILKES-BARRE — Former West Pittston Mayor Bill Goldsworthy was standing on the Water Street Bridge earlier this week with current Mayor Tom Blaskiewicz, staring at the massive ice jam on the Susquehanna River.
The two men, like all West Pittston residents, were concerned about what could happen if the ice didn’t soon break up and move on down the Susquehanna.
It’s times like these that sometimes a little humor needs to be injected. And if you know Goldsworthy and Blaskiewicz, humor is always nearby.
So Goldsworthy turns to Blaskiewicz and says this:
“OK folks, so after the last two days in dealing with the ice and the river, I have decided to run for Mayor of West Pittston again. And I am going to build a wall, a big beautiful wall — a wall we all will be proud of, and we will call it a dike and I will get Pittston City and Mayor (Mike) Lombardo to pay for it.”
Goldsworthy was joking, of course. He is not running for mayor. He was just trying to lighten up a situation that looked very dire. Blaskiewicz doubled over in laughter.
Goldsworthy is a resident of West Pittston, having served as mayor in years past. He has always been a fighter. He is a determined man, now serving as executive director of the American Red Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Goldsworthy is also a devout fan of the New York Yankees — as evidenced by the Yankee logo tattoo he had placed on one of his teeth. Ask him, he will show it to you.
As funny as Goldsworthy’s parody of President Donald Trump was, there was a very serious undertone in what he said. The bottom line is West Pittston needs flood protection. The town of less than 10,000 people is a quaint place with many historical homes and buildings. In fact, most of those sit right along Susquehanna Avenue, which you might have guessed, runs along the (at times) evil Susquehanna River.
West Pittston has been flooded numerous times. Its resilient people have come back time and again from high waters and the stink of flood mud. They have also been forced to pay high premiums for flood insurance.
Here’s where the story gets as murky as the Susquehanna’s waters.
Much of Wyoming Valley is protected by a rather formidable levee system — a system that failed in 1972 and was then raised to new heights. In 2011, much to the amazement of many flood experts, the levees held back a raging Susquehanna that rose to record heights.
A sad side effect of the sparing of Wyoming Valley was the flooding, again, of those towns along the river that are not protected — not part of the multi-million dollar levee system. West Pittston is the prime example. In 2011, water levels in the town exceeded those registered in 1972. Many say this is because of much more water backing up due to the higher levees downstream.
Let’s set aside the debate for now and deal with the reality of the situation — the Susquehanna River rises from time to time. Sometimes it gets really high and sometimes towns like West Pittston get flooded.
So when West Pittston officials and residents petitioned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a feasibility study to determine the cost to construct levees in unprotected areas, you might understand why West Pittston residents, for example, remain upset.
The Army Corps did evaluate the prospect of building dikes in West Pittston and determined that the cost to build those dikes would far exceed the value of the properties they would be protecting.
Read that one again.
In other words, the Corps couldn’t justify spending the federal dollars to build a levee that would protect such little of value.
Goldsworthy couldn’t resist commenting.
“I’m sure no one from the Army Corps lives in West Pittston,” Goldsworthy began. “But I and many others believe West Pittston is worth saving.”
Goldsworthy lives on Montgomery Avenue, one block from the river. He has been flooded, the last time in 2011 when the water rose to 5 feet on his first floor. He said he doesn’t even keep anything in his basement anymore because he knows he will have to carry it all to higher levels when the river rises.
Goldsworthy and all who live unprotected along the river stress out every time the Susquehanna starts to rise. Most of the year, they do enjoy an aesthetically pleasing view of the river, but when push comes to shove, they would all prefer an aesthetically pleasing levee system (see Wilkes-Barre) that protects them from water coming through their front doors.
Goldsworthy, Blaskiewicz and many others fear there will be a gradual exodus of residents from the town, causing a decline in population and tax revenue. Depending on how fearful the townsfolk get, the effects could be devastating.
If the Army Corps can’t or won’t justify building the levee system to offer protection, then can’t the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), at the very least, offer low-cost flood insurance?
If the only protection to be had is insuring the cost to cleanup, renovate and begin again, then make it as easy as possible.
As West Pittston resident Bob Russin once said, West Pittston is right in the middle of “Wyoming Valley’s spill basin.”
The Army Corps found the dollars to raise the levees downstream — a project that many believe increased the chance of flooding in the unprotected areas.
Maybe there should be a feasibility study on that theory and if proven accurate, then hold those responsible accountable.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle, or email at [email protected]