WEST PITTSTON — Bob Russin doesn’t know if his Victorian is among 13 flood-prone residential structures that may be jacked up if funding is identified, but he’s thrilled the elevation option has gained traction.
“Needless to say, I’m delighted. This is the first positive thing that has happened since the flood,” he said, referring to the record Susquehanna River inundation that devastated his borough seven years ago, in September 2011. “Usually we get excuses that they can’t do anything for residents here.”
Luzerne County’s Flood Protection Authority and its mitigation advisory board have both agreed to work with other government officials to seek an estimated $2.5 million to raise 13 borough structures.
To be eligible, houses must have sustained repetitive flooding and must fall within a planned West Pittston Historic District that would include Susquehanna and Montgomery avenues and Maple Street, officials said.
But county officials said they can’t identify the houses that may be raised at this time because the program specifics and funding are still unclear. Participating property owners also would be required to contribute a portion of the cost, they said.
“This project is in very, very initial phases,” said authority Executive Director Christopher Belleman. “It may take years to come to fruition.”
The raising of homes also may take a back seat if a feasibility study concludes the borough’s main goal of obtaining some form of levee protection is attainable, Belleman said.
The county Community Development Office has awarded $200,000 to the borough to study options for a non-federal flood damage reduction project, which could include a levee or inflatable dam.
Funding for this study came from a $25.4 million U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allocation to fix lingering damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in 2011, said county Community Development Executive Director Andrew Reilly. Most of that funding has been spent on or earmarked for flood-damaged infrastructure repairs and the purchase and demolition of flood zone structures, he said.
West Pittston Borough Council voted last week to seek proposals for the feasibility study project management. Completion of the study is expected to take six months, Reilly said.
Susquehanna Avenue resident Robert Trusavage is the first and only borough property owner to elevate his home, and it happened because he was willing to spend $120,000 of his own money for the $150,000 project.
The remaining $30,000 was provided by the National Flood Insurance Program.
“I feel a little bit better,” he said of his ranch home’s 2014 elevation.
He and his family have lived in the 1,800-square-foot structure for 27 years. Built in 1942, it’s the oldest ranch home in the borough, he has said.
While Trusavage wants fellow residents to enjoy this sense of enhanced protection, he said it seems “unfair” for government funds to cover most of the expense for them.
“I don’t think it’s right that others can get paid when we had to pay out of pocket,” he said. “I wonder if there’s reimbursement for us.”
Trusavage can’t be reimbursed because no approved program was in place when he proceeded with his elevation, other than the standard $30,000 insurance allocation, county officials said.
Like Trusavage, several property owners in Shickshinny and Plymouth Township also proceeded with their own elevations in the mid-2000s, paying for the portion not covered by insurance.
The Flood Protection Authority had considered funding some elevations around 2007 using mitigation funding for communities that aren’t protected by the Wyoming Valley Levee, but the authority backed away due to the expense and desire to first focus on buyouts to permanently get people out of flood zones.
“Even if a structure is elevated, there’s no guarantee it won’t flood again,” cautioned Jim Brozena, who serves as a consultant on mitigation projects.
What’s different now? Hundreds of properties have been demolished, and some county officials say West Pittston stands out from some other flood-prone municipalities without a levee because it is landlocked with little vacant space for new development on higher ground.
In addition to the feasibility study and elevations, West Pittston officials are working with the flood authority on participating in a Federal Emergency Management Agency Community Rating System to implement changes that may reduce flood insurance rates, such as increased public education and construction requirements, said council President Ellen Quinn.
In recent weeks, the flood authority and advisory board agreed to seek $75,000 in mitigation funding on three projects in the borough — $20,000 to help with the community rating application, $25,000 for data gathering to improve flood warning and response and $25,000 for river gauges.
Quinn said one-third of the borough flooded in 2011.
“Our goal would be to have permanent flood protection, which would be a levee, but we’d be very appreciative of any protection we can get,” Quinn said. “I am very hopeful we will get some help.”
Russin said elevation would be “second best to a levee.”
He would be willing to contribute toward raising his house because he and his wife are “totally stressed out” worrying about the flooding threat.
Russin wants to remain in his 4,000-square-foot home, where he has lived for more than three decades.
His house has lost value due to flooding, he said. His friend is trying to sell a home he had purchased for at least $325,000 in the borough, and there are no takers at $185,000, he said.
“Critics say if we don’t like it, move away, but the same people saying that are the ones protected by a levee,” Russin said. “A levee would put us in the exact same position as levee-protected communities.”
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.