As Texas struggles with the costly recovery from Hurricane Harvey and Florida gets clobbered by Hurricane Irma, it is worth revisiting what this area has done since Hurricane Agnes retaught residents the lesson of calamitous weather, a lesson reinforced by Tropical Storm Lee in 2011.
There are many pieces to the flood puzzle in any location, including paving too much land to increase water run off when it would have been absorbed by the ground, levee protections and early warning effectiveness that should decrease loss of lives if not property. But there is one factor as old as mankind itself: The propensity to build our homes and businesses in “flood plains.”
Where there are waterways, there are typically stretches of land that, until humans found them, served as sponges to absorb the crush when high rains (or rapid winter thaws) made those waters rise.
Very often, these lowlands are perfectly hospitable to human life because those floods don’t happen on a regular basis, or even very often at all. And the locations offer powerful lures: great views, great recreation opportunities and profitable economic possibilities.
So over the centuries we built, and built, and built some more. And we are both traumatized by the losses washed away, and shocked by the high cost of recovery. But recovery often means rebuilding in the same flood-prone plain.
In our area, the massive and costly levee system along the Susquehanna River was devised and improved to protect the more densely-populated places along the banks, but it was not extended to all. Many properties remained at risk.
This is the reality: Building in a flood plain comes with recurring costs. We pay to protect those properties from the water we know will come, we pay to repair and replace them when protection fails, and we pay to get rid of them when we deem them no longer worth protection and replacement.
That last one has almost certainly been the smallest cost of those three options, but it should arguably be the first choice more often.
In a story this week, Jennifer Learn-Andes reported on the progress of a buyout program in the Wyoming Valley. Former Luzerne County engineer and Flood Authority administrator Jim Brozena — now a consultant helping 10 municipalities handle the paperwork — estimated more than 300 properties will have been demolished by the time a pending round of projects is completed.
It’s not an easy thing to do. Some of these homes have great sentimental value to owners. The loss of taxable property can hit small municipal budgets hard, and the pain increases if the displaced owner decides to move out of town. The landscape is changed for good, and making it more than an empty lot gone to seed requires yet more money.
But both the local floods of six years ago and the current ones wrought by Harvey and Irma should make the lesson clear: We need to rethink our preference for living in flood-prone areas, and we need to decide if we want to keep paying the price.