Special Report: Leverage for the Levee
WEST PITTSTON, LUZERNE COUNTY (WOLF) —
When Joe Schatchi steps out his West Pittston home, he doesn't see the Susquehanna River.
He sees large chunks of ice.
"Well I'm glad that they stopped here," he said. "Because these are very, very heavy objects."
They're leftover from last month's ice jam, that flooded Susquehanna Avenue and many surrounding streets.
"They're like rock," he described.
While Joe's waterfront property is no stranger to flood waters, leaking in his home and leaving mud in his basement, these are a first.
"In 1985, the flood was with warmer weather and we didn't contend with this," said Schatchi.
He moved here thirty years ago and says the community was surveyed on putting up a levee system to prevent floods.
"We were newbies here and we thought it was a great idea, but a lot of the old fogies that had been here for years didn't think that they wanted to take away the view of the Susquehanna River permanently," Schatchi said.
Bill Goldsworthy remembers things a bit differently. The day that the Army Corps of Engineers came to assess for a levee he was a Borough Councilman. He recalls it as the Valentine's Day Massacre: February 14th, 1991.
"West Pittston wanted levees. The borough officials wanted levees. Most of the residents wanted levees. But there was a small outspoken group that spoke, saying, 'we like the view, we don't want levees'. And of course, that's what got publicized," said Goldsworthy.
That year, and several years since, including 2017, the Army Corps of Engineers have done studies to determine whether or not a West Pittston levee project is feasible.
They say, based on a cost-benefit analysis, that it's not.
"That's unfortunate. I mean, I live a block away from the river, I'd love to have a levee down there and I'd love to be protected so I never ever have to worry about it. But we just don't qualify," Goldsworthy shared.
According to the most recent project study, a levee would cost $51,423,000 million.
The maximum federal expenditure is just $10 million.
"When you think about raising the levees, you know, they raised the levees in Wilkes-Barre and Kingston. They already had a levee in the ground and the walls coming down so they added on top of it. Costs a couple million dollars, not real expensive. But in West Pittston, you'd have to start in the ground, build from the base up to as high as they were going to go to protect it," said Goldsworthy.
Former Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority Executive Director Jim Brozena says when levees were initially built in the valley starting in the 1930's, they didn't include West Pittston.
So when the time came for other levees in the Wyoming valley to be raised, there was nothing to build upon.
Now, the Army Corps of Engineers says it's not in the interest of the federal government to start from scratch.
But West Pittston Mayor Tom Blaskiwietz doesn't want the dialogue to stop at the financial bottom line.
"It's a shame that it seems like a conversation about a levee or protection for the residents in this town always gets ignited when there's flooding or icing or some kind of disaster that's knocking at our door," he said.
The 29-page study notes six major floods since Agnes in 1972. It says that "without implementation of any measures, the Borough of West Pittston will continue to suffer economic losses, loss of employment base, and face potential loss of life due to recurring flood damages from the Susquehanna River".
"There's no question that the feeling is shifting and if you look down the road, you'll see empty lots. People have taken the money and left town. And had their houses ripped down," said Schatchi.
Those houses were bought out by FEMA and demolished in a pre-disaster mitigation program.
But Dr. Jerry Reisinger of the Susquehanna River Watch and Seneca Nation of Indians says there may be a way to help prevent future flooding without adding levee system.
He compares the West Pittston channel to a clogged storm drain.
"The levee system works fine as long as you keep the channel clean on the river side of the levee. If you allow debris to build up and erosion to exist, it destabilize the levee system and creates flooding," he said.
Dr. Reisinger believes cleaning up the riverbanks and adding a park system like Nesbitt in Kingston would make all the difference.
"This is historically how the Iroquois had the valley when the Europeans came. It was an open landscape, trees, non-eroding turf, which allowed the water to flow in and ice to flow in and flow out without any obstruction. And this is what West Pittston needs," said Dr. Reisinger.
But county flood experts say a lot of unknowns come with dredging the Susquehanna River because of the mines underneath.
And opinions remain mixed on the waterfront.
"We talked to people who said - 'I'm not worried about it. Let the river come up, we'll deal with it. It doesn't happen that often. I like the area.' And I've had people say 'If I could sell the house tomorrow, I'd sell it. But I don't think anybody will buy it," said Schatchi.
And while he has been hoping for a levee for thirty year, he tells us he doesn't know if he'll be around another thirty to see if it ever happens.
"I don't know what the future's going to hold. It could be just no homes on the riverbank. It could be just big empty lots," he said.
Whatever flood protections might come for the borough of West Pittston, officials say they may bring peace of mind, but there is no guarantee that anything will completely prevent the borough from flooding.