If the weather events of the past 20 years are any indication, Bridgeville’s Baldwin Street corridor has more floods coming in the not-so-distant future.
And past trends in federal funding suggest that Bridgeville should expect little financial assistance to prevent the further loss of property and life.
But there may be a sliver of hope.
Bridgeville is working on a new approach to reducing the borough’s flood risk, and this initiative might—maybe, possibly, perhaps—attract some federal dollars.
The concept is a concession to nature. Rather than try to keep creek water away from the buildings that are located just a few feet from the banks of McLaughlin Run Creek, the borough could instead eliminate Baldwin Street as we know it, alter the course of the creek, and put wide, park-like greenspaces on both banks. Bower Hill Road would have to be re-routed, as well.
It’s hugely ambitious and hugely expensive. Making this a reality in the near future could require considerable outside funding.
Although FEMA has helped Bridgeville in the aftermath of some past floods, federal agencies have been less willing to help with efforts to prevent floods.
The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, has rejected numerous grant applications to pay for projects aimed at making Bridgeville less prone to floods.
“They declined our applications, citing a cost-versus-benefit basis,” said borough manager Lori Collins.
Flooding is not new to Baldwin Street and the surrounding area. Longtime residents can recall a significant flood that occurred in 1984. The next one was in 2004. But then another struck in 2013. Then came the devastating flood of last month, which killed one woman and had firefighters rescuing dozens of people by boat.
That’s not counting times that the area narrowly avoided floods, like when McLaughlin Run Creek lapped at its banks this past spring.
“I’ve been here 50 years,” one resident told borough officials after the June flood. “And now it seems like when it rains, it rains fast and hard.”
Over the years, Bridgeville has embarked on various small-scale flood mitigation initiatives, like clearing the creek bed of debris and repairing damaged sewer laterals. However, there is only so much that a town of 5,500 people can afford without astronomical tax increases.
With the risk and severity of floods increasing, the borough continues to look for a solution. Most recently, Bridgeville commissioned an environmental engineering firm to devise a strategy that could make a real, lasting difference—widening the creek and adding more greenspace around it.
Using greenspace to mitigate flood risk is a proven practice, but it is also expensive. The plan being formulated for the Baldwin Street Corridor would require the borough to purchase several dozen buildings and parcels of land in that part of town. This phase alone would cost many millions of dollars in a community where the annual operating budget—which pays for everything from the police force to public works—barely cracks $3 million.
Even if Bridgeville began buying property piecemeal at bargain prices following each future flood, it would take years until the borough had the land it needed to proceed.
This leads back to Bridgeville getting help from above.
The good news is that there may be some money out there. FEMA oversees multiple programs offering hazard mitigation grants. Last year, hundreds of millions of dollars in grant money were appropriated for various projects. And data show that FEMA contributes to buyout-related projects at a greater rate than other types of mitigation efforts. In some cases, FEMA will fund up to 75% of a project’s cost.
The not-so-good news is that these programs are highly competitive, have strict requirements, require coordination through state governments, and, of course, are judged on a cost-to-benefit basis.
In the eyes of federal agencies, a small section of a tiny community has a huge flooding problem. Although those floods have a very real impact on people, does preventing floods in the tiny area warrant a multi-million dollar investment? Could that money pay greater dividends elsewhere?
The cold calculus of federal decisionmaking leaves some residents wondering how much worse Bridgeville’s flood problem has to get before the government decides that investing in mitigation now is more cost-effective than continually writing checks after property losses.
In the meantime, others in the community, such as former mayor Pat DeBlasio, believe that Bridgeville should re-examine its planned spending for the next few years and consider steering money toward flood mitigation in the event other funding falls through.
“These floods have happened before,” he said, “and I guarantee they will happen again, unless we do something to change that. The community alone may have to take on the task of effecting that change.”