Luzerne County to develop written Susquehanna River flood response plan

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | January 21st, 2016 5:32 pm

Several administrators on the front line during record Susquehanna River flooding four years ago have left Luzerne County government, and others with hands-on experience may be gone when it floods again.

County acting Manager C. David Pedri plans to address this concern by creating a step-by-step flood response plan and periodically conducting dry runs, similar to regular emergency preparedness drills at the nuclear power plant in Salem Township.

Pedri held a meeting this week to discuss the plan with several county administrators and Christopher Belleman, executive director of the county Flood Protection Authority that oversees the Wyoming Valley Levee.

“Emergency protocols are in place, but this would be a specific road map for every county department involved along with the Flood Protection Authority so it’s perfectly clear to all parties what to do if a flood should occur,” Pedri said.

The employees who retired or left for other employment since 2012 include former county Emergency Management Agency Director Steve Bekanich, flood authority executive director Jim Brozena, chief engineer Joe Gibbons and planning/zoning director Adrian Merolli.

Pedri and other officials have expressed confidence in the flood preparedness skills of Belleman and Emergency Management Agency Director Lucille Morgan because they are both veteran employees heavily involved in the September 2011 flooding response.

But Pedri said written and rehearsed protocol is needed because there’s no way to predict the next flood’s timing and who will be serving in key administrative roles at that time.

Belleman, who reports to an outside five-member authority board, supports bringing all impacted entities together to develop a comprehensive plan.

“People retire or move on, so all the institutional knowledge gets lost. If you don’t have a program in place to try to capture all that information, it kind of puts the community in jeopardy,” Belleman said.

A practice installation of flood closure gates on the Market Street Bridge would require coordination with the state Department of Transportation and local officials to minimize inconvenience to motorists, Belleman said.

Belleman also is pursuing other initiatives to bolster flood response and compensate for county staffing cuts in recent years.

He is working with the region’s professional engineering association to line up engineers who will volunteer to patrol assigned levee stretches seeking seepage and other problems that must be addressed when it floods. A few local engineers have provided this assistance in the past, but Belleman said he wants to expand the number and formalize training.

Belleman also has reached out to levee-protected municipalities requesting agreements outlining what, if any, equipment, manpower and supplies they will provide during flooding. For example, municipalities could agree to furnish portable emergency lighting and pumps, assistance to keep people off the levee or help supplying and/or installing sand bags.

The authority also has requested federal approval to permanently fill in two abandoned railroad levee openings and equip several other levee gaps with gates or panels to reduce the need for sandbags when the river rises.

Around 7,000 sandbags are needed along the levee’s 16 miles during flooding, including many at 19 levee openings, Belleman said.

“Sand bags are extremely time-intensive and take a lot of labor,” Belleman said.


By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.