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COMMENTARY | Only 186 of 2,571 communities in Pennsylvania are considered “safe from high water." How officials reacted to severe flooding in 2011 has lessons for state and local officials across the nation.
Though most people are familiar with the state’s turnpike, Pennsylvania actually has more miles of waterways than roads. Beneath the bustle of traffic on the Pennsylvania Turnpike lies hundreds of miles of waterways—the power of which has rendered communities vulnerable to the growing rate (and intensity) of flooding events across the state.
The dangers of these development patterns were laid bare in 2011. In August, Hurricane Irene’s catastrophic flooding blocked roads and stranded residents. Falling debris and power outages separated families and were the cause of deaths across the state. A few weeks later, Tropical Storm Lee introduced more destruction to central Pennsylvania, killing at least a dozen people and knocking out power for over one million.
To address the damage, Pennsylvania received over $115 million in federal disaster relief funding. The state allocated a portion of this to a two-phased buyout program that addresses repetitive flooding damage to the same properties.
At the most basic level, a government-run buyout program acquires properties located in flood-prone areas, demolishes any structures on-site, and maintains the new property–which are often re-purposed as open spaces such as parks, flood storage, and overflow areas in perpetuity. It is an under-utilized strategy for rebuilding more resilient communities following flooding events.
When buyout programs are properly implemented, state and local governments can reverse development patterns that have led to flood risks. As importantly, they can help residents and business owners move to safer areas that won’t get repeatedly damaged by flooding events.
Utilizing FEMA funds and a 25 percent local match, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency was able to leverage $50 million to voluntarily acquire 573 properties, homes, and businesses. In the second phase, $10 million in federal funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was used to acquire 93 residential properties and provide permanent relocation assistance to tenants who were living in some of the leased properties. The commonwealth worked with local governments to purchase properties from homeowners, demolish the structures, clear the land, and maintain it in perpetuity as open space.
State agencies also worked with HUD to provide assistance for those living in homes that were severely damaged due to a sinkhole that occurred as a result of Tropical Storm Lee. These homeowners were predominately low and moderate income and had no other means to move out of a neighborhood that was literally sinking into the ground.
Ultimately, 53 houses are being acquired and over a dozen tenants were permanently relocated. Ninety-one additional properties have been or are currently in the process of being acquired in four counties.
As a result of this program, in one locality—Plymouth Township—there are almost no homes or businesses in a flood zone. The buyouts are saving lives, reducing the burden on first time responders, and long term will save the state money by moving flood prone properties out of harm’s way permanently.
For Pennsylvania, this first-time collaboration between its Department of Community and Economic Development and Emergency Management Agency has led to a long-term partnership that is creating a pre-disaster recovery plan for the entire state and a template for creating recovery plans at the county level.
State and Local Leaders Can Start Now
Still, only 186 of 2,571 communities in Pennsylvania are considered “safe from high water” by the US Geological Survey.
Local governments across the United States do not need to wait for the next inevitable disaster to happen. Municipal leaders should update their hazard mitigation plans to map where future buyouts can occur. This prepares officials to act upon federal funding, allowing them to have a plan in place to relocate houses and businesses that have flooded.
By proactively mapping areas for potential buyouts, municipal leaders can prepare residents’ homes and local businesses for relocation to areas less prone to flooding. With enough planning, localities can even plan for where to locate quality housing in lower-risk areas that can ensure residents have a place to move within their community. This planning leads to a win-win for the municipality and residents; municipalities don’t lose their tax base and residents don’t have to leave their communities.
Brandy Bones is a Senior Manager at ICF.
Donna Enrico is an Economic Development Consultant at the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development.
Tom Hughes is a State Hazard Mitigation Officer at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA).
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