2011-10-13 / Local & State

Some Small Pennsylvania Towns Fret Over Flooding’s Effects

By Genaro C. Armas

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (AP) – Tami Brown could only watch helplessly from her minivan parked on higher ground about 100 yards from home as she watched water from the Loyalsock Creek lap into her driveway.

With the road closed, Brown couldn't immediately view the damage to her single family house. But the devastation she saw when she finally returned days later was enough for the mother of three to decide against returning to the idyllic, rural central Pennsylvania community she loved.

When the cleanup finally ends, some small towns and rural communities face the prospect of dwindling population and declining tax bases as residents like Brown look for a fresh start away from areas ravaged by flooding in September caused by the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee.

“This is our fourth flood here, but this is by far the worst,” Brown said. “We love the area ... but now it's totaled.”

The flooding overwhelmed communities all along the Susquehanna River, which meanders through northeastern and central Pennsylvania. Much of the public attention in Lee's immediate aftermath focused on the population centers of Harrisburg and Wilkes-Barre.

Yet the damage was just as bad, if not worse, in small, out-of-the-way villages like Barbours in Plunketts Creek Township, Lycoming County. The 2010 census showed a township population of about 680, down 11 percent from a decade earlier.

Brown, a third-shift nursing home worker, may be next to go.

She lived for more than a decade on a property converted from an old gas station at a quiet crossroads. It's the type of area where she and her husband felt comfortable having their three children take walks or bike along an isolated road that winds along the creek.

Post-flood, the uprooted trees and shoreline further down the road now hold painful reminders of their lives. The flood tore away their home’s walls and inundated the entire first floor, leaving behind a mangled mess of wiring, wet framing and waterlogged furniture and toys. An antique upright piano disappeared.

“We haven’t found one single key on it anywhere,” Brown said, gesturing at the now empty, messy space.

Clothing and blankets were strewn among empty branches. Brown's two beloved Volkswagen beetles were carried away from the property and deposited more than 30 yards away along another nearby swollen tributary that empties into the Loyalsock.

She was waiting for an engineer from her insurance company to designate her home as destroyed, a label she hoped would help open up opportunities to finally obtain government loans or grants to find a new home.

Appreciative of neighbors' support and charitable donations, a tired and frustrated Brown also felt smaller towns didn't receive as much attention when it comes to government response.

“We're kind of like the forgotten ones,” she said. “I mean, who knows Barbours unless you’re a hunter or fisherman ... This is our life, and it just got washed away.”

Township officials worry about the mounting bills. One road alone could take $ 1.8 million to repair, or about 10 years' worth of the municipality's budget, supervisor Gary Abernatha said.

“We don’t have any monetary funds to do a lot of the stuff that we’ve got to have done,” he said in a phone interview. “I know everybody is looking for money ... It’s looking very difficult.”

And that’s not accounting for what the budget might look like in the future with the likelihood of families moving out of the area. According to the local volunteer fire department, 92 homes in its coverage area were destroyed, while 56 suffered “major damage.”

“ Our tax base, that's washed away. That's going to go downhill dramatically, I'm sure,” Abernatha said. “I simply can’t blame the people who aren’t going back.”

At the same time, he has a sense of optimism, hoping that time may make the sting of starting over less painful for some residents, that perhaps people will stay in the township but away from the creek.

“You've got to give people a chance to get back around, get reoriented and move back into the places that they're going to fix,” he said.

About 95 miles southeast of Plunketts Creek in Pine Grove, Mayor Kim Brown- Zerbe designated Saturday a community bonfire day for the Schuylkill County borough with a population of about 3,000. About 40 volunteers helped clear debris from 20 damaged homes, and Zerbe also sought to remove uprooted or damaged trees in an effort to help clean up for the annual town Autumn Stroll Craft and Car Show next week.

“We’re hoping next week starts our attempt to be normal again,” she said Saturday in a phone interview, “at least as normal as Pine Grove can be.”

Brown-Zerbe has heard of at least 10 families who have decided to leave because of flood damage. Wayne Fanelli, the president of Pine Grove Manufactured Homes Inc., told Gov. Tom Corbett during a damage assessment Thursday that he was closing his business after the fifth flood since 1993.

The borough’s initial cleanup bills are roughly $150,000, Brown-Zerbe said.

“The things we have done now, we need to do them,” she said, referring to cleanup efforts. “When it comes to the next steps, that depends on the money coming in ... If we can’t rebuild (structures), then we will relocate. If we don’t buy new, we'll buy used.”

The storm deluged the town with more than 15 inches of rain, forcing the Swatara Creek to quickly overflow its banks. About 200 homes were inundated – and 20 to 40 of them destroyed – in what's considered the worst flooding in town in a century.

A sympathetic Corbett cautioned that state and county coffers took a hit as well. Funds are limited, so the state, like municipalities, will be searching for funding.

Opinion about the Federal Emergency Management Agency's response has been generally positive, though many residents expressed frustration about political gamesmanship in Washington over disaster aid funding.

“They’re doing the best they can, but let’s face it: Their hands are tied ... because of the bureaucracy,” said John Blair, who lives down the street from Brown in Barbours and rents out a vacation cabin along the creek that was severely damaged. “The sad part is, when there's a disaster someplace else, the United States is the first one to jump in to give out aid.”

Dirt stains marked the high-water point on the cabin's exterior, about threequarters of the way up the 7- foot-tall front door. Blair plans to remodel the property.

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