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Troop of local, state, federal officials tour Williamsport levee, pump stations

City of Williamsport Flood Control Manager Kevin Ames, far left, talks with Congressman Fred Keller, Lycoming County Commissioner Scott Metzger, Williamsport Mayor Derek Slaughter and Lycoming County Commissioner Richard Mirabito, far right, at one of the flood mitigation pumping stations in Williamsport about the need for upgrades to the system to protect the city from future flooding Friday afternoon. DAVE KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette

A U.S. lawmaker joined a host of others Friday afternoon on a tour of the Williamsport levee, a 20-mile flood control system built 70 years ago in the 1950s.

“I was really glad we could get together and determine a path forward,” said U.S. Rep. Fred Keller, R-Kreamer, representing the 12th Congressional District.

Keller first met with the officials to discuss the viability of the levee, its repair needs and potential funding and construction solutions.

At a pump house tour, he was upbeat about getting the levee recertified by Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“It is not only important to the city of Williamsport, but to Lycoming County and the entire northcentral region,” he said.

Today, the levee is showing its age, as pump stations that force water out of the city require upgrades to prevent failure during high water events.

Other repairs needed are cross pipes that drain flood water, and — the largest expense — concrete flood walls along Lycoming Creek to be made stronger and higher to withstand the next 100-year flood.

The project is adding up into the millions of dollars, very cost-prohibitive to the city, South Williamsport borough, and Old Lycoming and Loyalsock townships, which are a part of the levee system, Keller said.

In 2012, the process to get the 70-year-old flood protection system recertified and accredited with the Federal Emergency Management Agency began.

“We need to be doing our part at all levels of government to protect our communities like Williamsport, which possesses an important levee system that covers the city itself, South Williamsport, and both Loyalsock and Old Lycoming townships, and has numerous benefits to the Commonwealth,” Keller said.

Earlier this week, FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell testified before the House Oversight Committee to discuss the dangers of aging infrastructure, among other items.

Criswell stressed the importance of evaluating decades-old projects and determining how best to improve mitigation efforts.

“I see this meeting as an opportunity to do just that,” Keller said.

He specified that infrastructure should be defined as flood control projects, roads and bridges, and internet broadband not what he said some career politicians believe should be wrapped into legislation and labeled as an infrastructure bill.

“Every resident of the Greater Williamsport Area has a stake in this project, and I appreciate the good work that has been done by local stakeholders working together over the years for the benefit of our constituents,” Keller said.

The meeting fostered open dialogue about concerns regarding the levee – no matter political party and it establish a path forward to address numerous issues including the aging pump stations, the need from replacing cross pipe sections draining water into the waterways and the reconstruction of levee walls along the Lycoming Creek side.

“I’m really excited,” said Col. Estee Pinchasin, Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Baltimore District.

“It’s a great partnership with the inter-agencies,” Pinchasin said.

She noted how the collaboration in this community is a “clear commitment” to improving these levees, and hoping to alleviate the cost of insurance they would have to carry.”

Pinchasin said she was looking at the challenge in a holistic way, with a risk assessment of the system necessary to identify areas needing to be improved immediately to achieve the FEMA certification and to help to work with the community simultaneously on the system for its improvement.

County, city on same page to reach recertification

“We are making progress when we say we are going to need to reach out to the public and find ways to continue to get the financial support,” said County Commissioner Rick Mirabito.

Mirabito was joined by Commissioners Scott Metzger and Tony Mussare.

“We’ve gotten support from federal, state and local governments on the finances,” Mirabito said.

“The public will need to step up and understand when a proposal is put out there for ongoing maintenance, that we have to maintain the levee for the next 50 years,” Mirabito said.

“We appreciate the colonel, Army Corps, Congressman Keller and others with FEMA and the county coming together today for this extremely important issue, which is the levee recertification and accreditation, Mayor Derek Slaughter said.

“After the meeting, we have established a path forward to ensure if we have a high water event, the levee system is going to protect folks,” Slaughter said. “We have a lot of work to be done and it is not going to be overnight.”

The city has the option of using a portion of its $25.4 million of American Rescue Plan funds toward levee improvements.

Additionally, the city and county are working with Keller Partners, a Washington, D.C.-based economic development firm that is working with the Williamsport congressional delegation. Keller was a part of getting U.S. Economic Development Administration, which previously to award the levee project $5.6 million.

Keller, who was on the tour, said the challenge is to work as a team on the levee, built by the Army Corps.

After devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, FEMA required strict guidelines to be met to recertify Corps-built levees, otherwise those protected in the floodplain would have to pay for flood insurance.

Storms worsening, increasing

If this summer is any sign of things to come, weather has affected many communities across the country – including many in the Northeast.

A series of natural disasters has hit the U.S. in recent years, and levee protection and flood risk have rightly gotten a lot of attention from federal, state, and local government entities.

Since it was completed by the Corps of Engineers in 1955, the 20-mile levee system has withstood decades of storms, severe weather, and rising waters that had previously damaged large sections of the city before the levee’s construction.

Along with the obvious benefits to businesses and individuals, the levee protects roughly 45 percent of the county’s workforce, 1,500 commercial, industrial, and institutional properties, and another 4,400 residential properties.

The levee is estimated to protect $4 billion of residential, commercial, industrial and non-profit real estate, according to county planning office estimates.

It is the second largest levee system in the Baltimore Engineering District.

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