Money to aid flood victims slowly trickling in, officials say

Last October’s flood hit with an intensity the county called catastrophic, requiring constant work through the year to rebuild and prepare for one like it in the future.

An estimated 6 to 10 inches of rain fell along the Loyalsock and Lycoming creek watersheds on Oct. 21, 2016.

Floodwaters destroyed or seriously damaged many state and local roads and bridges. Over 20 primary homes either were destroyed or received major damage and displaced over 100 people, causing roughly $33.2 million in damage throughout Lycoming, Sullivan, Bradford and nearby counties.

The areas in the county most affected were Trout Run, Ralston, Warrensville, Cascade and Hepburn, Old Lycoming and Plunketts Creek townships, said Josh Schnitzlein, hazard reduction planner with the county’s Department of Planning and Community Development. McIntyre suffered the worst damage, assessed at about $1.6 million.

“There was debris found as far as the Little League baseball field in Montoursville,” Schnitzlein said.

‘Not a typical flood’

The flood last October hit the area by surprise. Agencies at every level immediately re-sponded and had to cooperate extensively.

“It impacted areas that didn’t typically receive flooding in the past,” Schnitzlein explained. “We had flooding on hills and higher up … it was just simply not a typical flood.”

The threshold for the state to trigger the classification of a major disaster is $18.1 million. This flood almost doubled that.

Directly after the flood, the county set up three mini-disaster relief centers in the most impacted areas — Ralson, Plunketts Creek Township and one at the Department of Public Safety near Warrensville Road, said John Yingling, director of the county’s Department of Public Safety.

Many from the department of public safety, the state Department of Environmental Protection, the American Red Cross and the state and federal Emergency Management agencies were all at those locations.

For three months after the flood, the county assessed the damage in close cooperation with FEMA and PEMA.

Along with FEMA’s assessment, it made the call of what type of relief the county applied for — relief that would affect the work that was to be done in 2017, Schnitzlein said.

The determination is between public and individual assistance.

“Public would mean they’d help with any roads and they’d come in and assess the public areas,” Schnitzlein said. “Individual assistance would mean they’d come in and look at every single house. We did not qualify for that. It’s good we had some other things in place to help with those people.”

Lycoming County had three major assistance programs helping those affected by the flash flood. Much of the work was ongoing through 2017.

The supportive housing program provided affordable housing for residents and homeowners in the low-to-moderate income brackets who were unable to live in their homes for a time because of flooding.

The county homes in need program helped complete needed repairs directly caused by the flood using grant funding.

The buyout program was saved for the worst of the worst. In cooperation with FEMA and PEMA, these were the houses that were substantially damaged to the point of surpassing the pre-flood price of the home, Schnitzlein said.

Many of the structures damaged in the flood didn’t apply for any of these programs because they were not primary homes.

Buyout hangup

Almost exactly a month after the flood, Gov. Tom Wolf officially announced his request for disaster declaration.

“After my trip there right after the flooding, I understood that the devastation in northcentral Pennsylvania is more significant and widespread than we have seen recently in the commonwealth,” Wolf said in a news release. “These two programs are the best options available to provide financial assistance to both local governments and citizens who have been impacted by this flooding.”

With those declarations approved, FEMA and PEMA buyouts moved forward.

“FEMA and PEMA have a specific process on how they get that funding,” Schnitzlein said. “It usually takes somewhere around a year.”

The agencies need to do a historical review of the house, an environmental review of the land and then both separately need to approve each buyout.

Seven to eight months into the process as it was moving in typical speed, Hurricane Harvey hit the coast of Texas.

All the FEMA money intended to be used in the buyouts here were rerouted to fund hurricane relief, Schnitzlein said. But the 20 houses approved for buyouts in the county will be receiving that assured money, it’s just a matter of time, he said.

“Things are moving again and starting to reallocate back up here,” Schnitzlein said.

Assessing risk

The planning department always is working on assessment and mitigation. But, this year, much was done to thwart the impacts of flooding.

A first step to that was assessing the county’s risk.

In the 1960s, the federal government decided to use a probability as the basis for the National Flood Insurance Program, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The probability was thought to be a fair balance between protecting the public and overly stringent regulation.

The probability, commonly referred to as a “100-year flood,” means a flood of that capacity has a 1 in 100 chance of being equaled or exceeded in any one year and has an average recurrence chance of 100 years.

According to the county’s risk assessment, there are 47,651 structures in the county. Of those, 4,515 are in the high hazard area for flooding. 3,321 of those are residential.

In the event of a hundred-year flood, 3,383 households would be displaced and 5,915 would require temporary shelter, according to that assessment. The flood would create 84,260 tons of debris which would require 3,370 truckloads to remove.

The total estimated cost of the damage would be $597 million.

Seven critical facilities would experience a total loss of use.

“This really allows us to examine vulnerable areas,” Schnitzlein said. “It gives us the advantage in knowing what to prepare for … to generate relevant questions. ‘Does it make sense to do the same things in Muncy as Jersey Shore?’ Both are prone to flooding, but both flood in very different ways.”

Fixing what’s there

It’s always good to have a plan, but what good is a plan without any implementation, Schnitzlein said.

The county’s flood management approach includes ongoing projects in levee protection, property acquisition, flood insurance reform, regulatory tools and home remediation.

This year, the county joined with other local agencies to recertify the levee.

The levee protects 40 percent of the $2.7 billion in real estate in the city, South Williamsport and Old Lycoming and Loyalsock townships. That is ongoing.

All of the facets of the county’s approach are constantly explored, but this year, home remediation was a big project.

Through grant funding, the county gained $1 million to raise homes. Homes in Muncy and Loyalsock Township each will receive half of the funding.

There also was $1.6 million gained for other home remediation projects.

“Buyouts are definitely good,” Schnitzlein said. “But there are about 600 homes that are severe repetitive loss properties.”

The designation means that flood damage from the past decade outweighs the worth of the overall house.

“Lycoming County has about 2,200 stream miles, and more severe repetitive loss properties than most. Where you run into a problem with buyouts is when there is an entire street in the zone. How do you pick which ones get bought out? And how do you preserve that community without eroding where people live and the tax base there?”

There was a lot less concern about the floodplain when many of the houses were built in the 1940s, he said.

“We can’t just take them out and start over. But we can remediate.”

Repairing infrastructure

Roads and bridges were hit hard in the flood. The damage to county and municipal roads and bridges was $7.4 million alone, Yingling said.

In Lycoming, Sullivan and Bradford counties, 46 roads were impacted by the flooding and needed some type of recovery work, said David Thompson, community relations coordinator for the state Department of Transportation.

Some were severely damaged or completely destroyed.

The bridge on Wallis Run Road over the tributary to the Loyalsock Creek below Butternut Grove Road was completely washed out. Work continued on that throughout 2017.

“In the immediate aftermath of the flood, we replaced the washed-out bridge with a series of large pipes and a temporary road to provide residents of Butternut Grove with outside access,” Thompson said.

The pipes were replaced by a temporary bridge and a road tied to it.

Work is underway on the construction of a new permanent bridge costing about $5 million. When the new bridge is tied into the existing roadway, the temporary bridge will be removed and final paving done. Paving should be completed in the spring.

The permanent bridge is expected to be open late this month.