Amid questions about how to pay for flood damage and future protection in this town and across the U.S., Vice President Joe Biden on Friday traveled here Friday to view some of the massive damage caused last week by the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee.
Touring a flooded neighborhood in Duryea, Biden pledged the resources of the federal government in encouraging one distraught homeowner to rebuild his home, saying "Hang on. This is no time to give up."
The neighborhood has piles of debris lining its streets and a musty, mildew stench left behind by the receding water.
Record flooding along small streams and the Susquehanna River damaged or destroyed thousands of homes and businesses, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.
Congress' failure to deliver on promised hazard-mitigation funding may wind up taking blame for some of the devastation.
Experts say a massive levee system that shielded the city of Wilkes-Barre and its riverfront suburbs likely made things worse downstream and upstream, where record floodwaters swamped homes and businesses after heavy rainfall.
"I'm fearful that the levees that have been built are complicating things downstream," said Helena Fisher, who lost nearly everything on the first floor of her home downstream in Bloomsburg, where the Susquehanna crested at an all-time high.
"All we're doing is sending it on to the next community," she said.
Wilkes-Barre's $175 million system of dikes and floodwalls, which was strengthened in response to the remnants of 1972's Hurricane Agnes, prevented tens of millions of dollars in property damage from Lee.
Yet, nearly a decade after construction on the levee system ended, Congress has yet to appropriate more than $15 million of the $23 million it had authorized years ago for property buyouts and flood mitigation projects — all of which were intended to reduce the levees' impact on low-lying, unprotected municipalities.
"The program has stalled due to lack of funding by Congress," said Jim Brozena, executive director of the Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority, which maintains the levee system and heads the mitigation plan.
The lack of funding is repeated across the country. The Army Corps of Engineers only has $150 million for repairs in its budget and estimates this year's flood damage will easily top $2 billion.
Experts say levees can worsen flooding miles downstream by constricting the channel through which water flows, resulting in increased velocity and higher crests. Levees also pose a problem for upstream towns by acting as a choke point or valve, allowing the water to back up, said Rick Weisman, a professor of hydraulic engineering at Lehigh University in Bethlehem.
Engineers concluded years ago that Wilkes-Barre's newly raised dikes, when paired with an Agnes-level flood, would send an additional foot of water into unprotected homes and businesses. The mitigation plan, which covers 53 communities in five counties, was supposed to offset the heightened risk, at least partly.
But only $7 million has been appropriated and spent since 1996. And funding has all but dried up, a function of the recent ban on federal earmarks — those home-state projects that critics deride as wasteful — and the nation's budget woes.
Demand for protection too high
Noting the visit by Biden, who spent his boyhood in nearby Scranton, Brozena said he hopes the funding issue will be addressed.
The mitigation program has paid for several improvements, including a flood-modeling program, flood-proofing of a sewage treatment plant, and a telephone warning system, as well as the acquisition and demolition of 20 to 25 properties.
But more than 600 properties remain on a priority list. Even at full funding, the program would yield perhaps 100 to 150 additional acquisitions, not nearly enough to meet demand.
Some residents don't want to be bought out — they want a floodwall.
In hard-hit Plymouth Township, just downstream from the levee system, residents had begged to be protected by the dikes. But a cost-benefit analysis by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers excluded the township, and other nearby communities, from consideration; it would have cost more to extend flood protection to them than the properties were worth.
Given last week's deluge and serious floods in 2004, 2005 and 2006, Plymouth Township Supervisor Gale Conrad called for a fresh look at the economics.
"The levee is absolutely wonderful for those that are protected by it. For those who are not protected by it, it's a whole different situation," she said. "Instead of repetitive flood damage payouts to the tune of millions and millions, wouldn't it make sense to just get everybody protected by the levee?"
Conrad said constituents who have endured repeated floods, some of them while awaiting buyouts, are at the end of their rope.
"They've already hollered and cried and begged and worked all of that emotion out. Now it's a feeling of emptiness and in some cases they are ready to give up on life. I've heard that."
'We'll fix this'
There are 56.7 miles of federally constructed levees in Pennsylvania, including many in densely populated Wyoming Valley places including Wilkes-Barre, Kingston, Edwardsville, Exeter, Plymouth, Swoyersville and Forty Fort.
Freshman U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., whose district includes flooded towns up and down the Susquehanna, said he plans to meet with the leadership of the Army Corps to talk about, among other things, "the unintended consequences" of the Wyoming Valley levee system.
The first federally funded levee protecting the Wyoming Valley was built in response to a 1936 flood and held for more than four decades. Then, in 1972, Agnes dumped more than a foot of rain on northeastern Pennsylvania, causing $1 billion in damage as the Susquehanna topped the 36-foot dikes. It was, at the time, the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
Despite a promise from President Richard Nixon that "we'll fix this and it will never happen again" — and a 1979 plan by the Army Corps to strengthen the levee system — nothing happened until January 1996, when the river came perilously close to spilling over the dikes again.
This time, Congress authorized funding to raise the levees by 3 to 5 feet. Work began in 1997 and was completed in 2003.
Last week, the system performed better than advertised.
Designed to withstand a crest of 41 feet, the levees held back a river that rose to 42.66 feet — nearly 2 feet higher than after Agnes. The Susquehanna didn't go over the dikes because engineers had built in a margin of safety to account for waves, bridge openings and other variables. Tens of thousands of residents in a dozen towns were spared.