Our Opinion: Brace for rising flood risk along Susquehanna River

September 9th, 2015 2:33 pm

If you live very near the Susquehanna River in a low-lying spot, chances are, eventually you will get soaked.

Either flood water will one day lap at your home’s foundation, or insurance companies will extract extra-high premiums to compensate for the added risk of providing coverage to your property, deemed likely to get dunked.

Or both.

In an ongoing effort to coax people away from water’s edge, the federal government is making the options clear: pay out (for insurance), pull up stakes (and move to higher ground) or elevate (by raising a house above likely flood levels). The goal: Avoid Katrina-like catastrophes that can claim lives and cost billions in rescue and recovery efforts.

Longtime residents of the Greater Wyoming Valley should be especially attuned to the message, as they’ve witnessed how cruel a rain-swollen river can be to human encroachers. The Susquehanna, considered one of the most flood-prone rivers in the United States, devastated downtown Wilkes-Barre and other Valley communities in 1972, then threatened four years ago to do the same. The levee system staved off widespread ruin in September 2011; however, unprotected communities such as West Pittston were punished. More than 800 structures in the borough sustained damage.

And next time?

The levee system, credited since 1968 with sparing the area about $8 billion in damages, might in some places be inadequate for future storms, according to recently updated computer modeling.

Hydrology experts pin the problem on a trio of issues: climate change that spawns stronger storms, urban sprawl that results in less plant-covered land to soak up water and changes to the river channel. In short, we humans made this mess and now we’ll pay the price.

New flood maps are expected to be issued within the next few years. In turn, flood insurance rates could go up for residents of some levee-protected places, though not as high as in communities without any barriers, said Christopher Belleman, executive director of the Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority.

Groans are likely to be heard from discontented residents within the river’s Wilkes-Barre/Hanover Township and Plymouth stretches, where new projections indicate the levee is lacking a precautionary 3-foot buffer.

“The next maps will show more properties are at risk,” Belleman told the Times Leader for an article Sunday outlining the Valley’s vulnerability. “That’s why it’s important to get people out of the flood zone, especially if they’re not levee-protected.”

Already, a gradual retreat from the river has obliterated neighborhoods in parts of Shickshinny as well as Plymouth and Jenkins townships. Buyouts of high-risk properties continue, as does demolition, said former flood authority chief Jim Brozena.

“The main thing is,” he said, “that we’re making strides in removing people from harm’s way.”

The Wyoming Valley’s levee system staved off widespread ruin in September 2011. But parts of the levee might not be up to the task during future high-water events, according to a new analysis. (Times Leader file photo)
http://www.psdispatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/web1_Flood-Anniversary.jpgThe Wyoming Valley’s levee system staved off widespread ruin in September 2011. But parts of the levee might not be up to the task during future high-water events, according to a new analysis. (Times Leader file photo)


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