‘RIPPLE EFFECTS’: County plan takes proactive approach to future flooding

County plan takes proactive approach to future flooding

SUN-GAZETTE ARCHIVES By 1972, when Hurricane Agnes hit Pennsylvania, the levee provided protection to many areas of the city. A weak point was at the Memorial Avenue bridge, where locals placed sandbags across the entrance to keep the rising waters of Lycoming Creek away from the residential neighborhood nearby.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The county planning department is rolling out a draft of its new comprehensive plan with a different topic each week through April 5. The Sun-Gazette today continues a weekly series detailing the aspects of each week’s topic.)

Flooding, a hazardous and expensive natural phenomenon that happens frequently throughout Lycoming County, was the topic of discussion as the county Department of Planning and Community Development offered its fourth presentation of eight dedicated to the drafted county comprehensive plan during Thursday’s commissioners meeting.

Floods are the most common and costly natural catastrophe in the United States, said Josh Schnitzlein, hazard mitigation planner.

“It’s important to stress that, with flooding, it is an economic issue,” he said. “If we weren’t able to control flooding or prevent it at some level, we’re looking at about $100 million of cumulative effects from the floods we’ve experienced throughout the years, all the way back to Agnes in 1972.”

Lycoming County has no shortage of opportunities for more flooding, between its frequent rainy weather and many naturally occuring sources of water.

“We’re generally considered to have the most stream miles of any county in Pennsylvania,” Schnitzlein said.

In addition, there are six watersheds in the county and, every two to three years, there is major flooding along the state’s major rivers, one of which flows

through Lycoming County.

“There’s a lot to be dealing with,” he said. “We experience flooding all year round.”

Since the last county comprehensive plan was implemented in 2006, the county has experienced 20 major flooding events causing over $30 million in damage.

If a flood hit now and the levee didn’t protect the city and surrounding municipalities, there could be anywhere from $7 million to $70 million in damage, Schnitzlein said. Additionally, thousands of citizens would be at risk of injury or displacement or be forced out of work if local businesses are damaged, he said.

“Flooding is always going to occur,” he said. “So what can we do to ease that burden to the homeowners and properties?”

To help deal with the risk of flooding countywide, the planning department is looking at a five-pillar strategic approach to flood management: levee protection, home remediation, property acquisition, regulatory tools and flood insurance reform.

The county is working with the City of Williamsport, South Williamsport and Loyalsock Township to re-certify the levee, which protects about $2.7 billion in real estate across multiple municipalities, Schnitzlein said.

“That’s one of our major responsibilities, to make sure that our main levee in the county is protected,” he said.

Home remediation involves helping homeowners affected by flooding with buy-outs, rental assistance, home repairs and debris removal. The county also does elevations, raising homes above flood level or relocating utilities out of basements.

Schnitzlein said the county also can remove homes from floodplains entirely, which goes hand-in-hand with regulatory tools.

Zoning enforcement for floodplains didn’t exist until the 1970s, Schnitzlein said.

“It was sort of a free-for-all,” he said. “You could build anywhere you wanted to, and you see the effects of that today where a stream channel may diverge during a flood and run through someone’s home. We’re trying to prevent that through our zoning office.”

With that, the county constantly is updating its floodplain mapping with help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We work to make sure that it’s completely accurate so that the right homeowners are in the floodplain and they need to know, through education, what that means — some of the impacts on their house — and also what the costs will be,” Schnitzlein said. “We’re also making sure it’s accurate so we don’t have people on the floodplain who shouldn’t be.”

The county also has been lobbying for changes to the federal Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, a program that has been increasing insurance rates in part to pay off debt on past catastrophes such as 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, Schnitzlein said.

“We work with local, state and federal officials, tools and different agencies to advocate for a proper way to lessen the burden of that cost on our homeowners, and being responsible with flood insurance,” he said.

Nearly 10 percent of county homeowners live in a floodplain, said Kim Wheeler, deputy director of planning.

“We have a pretty significant economic issue for people whose rates are inflated like they’ve never been before,” she said. “We’re talking about people not even being able to meet their own needs, much less contribute to the economy. Nobody has money to repair these houses and keep them maintained because they’re paying flood insurance. It has lots of ripple effects.”

The planning department calculated the losses Lycoming County would experience if an “Agnes-level flood” hit today, referring to the 1972 hurricane that resulted in $2 billion in losses in the Susquehanna River Basin and took 122 lives across Pennsylvania.

The hypothetical scenario estimates 1,740 buildings including four hospitals, five emergency operation centers, 17 police stations, 39 fire stations and 51 schools would be damaged, with about 240 buildings being completely destroyed. Nearly 3,400 households, or about 6,000 people, would be displaced.

It also estimates such a storm would generate about 84,260 tons of debris.

“Another thing we have to do besides get grant money for structural remediation projects is education and outreach, and we also have to know what our risk is. We run analyses like this to understand what the risk is so we can cooperate with the Department of Public Safety and local emergency managers,” he said.

“We’re being proactive in our approach, not just reactive.”