FEMA Updates Flood Maps Along Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River

Property owners and renters will have 90 days to submit comments and appeals, which FEMA must then study and respond to. Municipalities have six months to update flood plain management ordinances to include the new maps.

by Jennifer Learn-Andes, The Times-Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.) / September 30, 2019

(TNS) — More review is planned before any flood map changes are imposed along the Wilkes-Barre/Hanover and Plymouth stretches of the Wyoming Valley Levee, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

Local officials expect new updated maps to bring flood insurance rate hikes along both stretches because federal analysis concluded the safety buffer atop the levee in both areas — called a “freeboard” — is now inches below the required 3 feet. The government cited increased storms, development and sediment and tree growth in the Susquehanna River as reasons.

The Kingston-to-Exeter levee stretch still meets the freeboard standard because it’s on higher ground, officials said.

Although FEMA plans to release preliminary flood maps for all Luzerne County communities along the Susquehanna early next year, these maps won’t contain changes for properties behind the Wilkes-Barre/Hanover or Plymouth levee stretches, a FEMA spokesman said this week.

Instead, the government agency will work with local officials to determine the “best mapping option” for the two stretches, the spokesman said.

“No changes to the mapping of the levee-impacted areas landward of the Wilkes-Barre/Hanover and Plymouth Levee Systems will be made without community input,” the spokesman said.

While the two levee stretches are not impacted for now, the new preliminary maps will cover areas that have no levee protection.

Resulting flood insurance rate changes would not take effect until the maps become final, which is not expected to occur until the end of 2021 or early 2022, the FEMA spokesman said.

Several steps must be completed before the maps take effect.

Upon release of the preliminary maps, property owners and renters will have 90 days to submit comments and appeals, and FEMA must then study these submissions and provide responses. Municipalities also are allotted six months to update their flood plain management ordinances to incorporate the new maps.

FEMA will hold a community coordination and outreach meeting with local officials when it releases the preliminary maps, the spokesman said.

The agency started exploring the possibility of new maps after the Susquehanna rose to a record 42.66 feet in September 2011. It wanted to ensure the maps were based on the latest flood frequency information for the river, the spokesman said.

The last flood map update was in 2012, officials said. FEMA held three meetings with area officials in 2014, 2015 and 2017 to discuss the mapping plans and flood hazard issues.

“We have seen considerable changes in flow along the Susquehanna since the last time we completed flood maps for this area, and it’s important that people understand the risk to their properties,” the FEMA spokesman said.

Freeboard concerns

The freeboard deficiency determination means the Wilkes-Barre/Hanover and Plymouth stretches don’t qualify for accreditation, officials have said.

Accreditation indicates the federal government is confident a levee will provide adequate base flood risk reduction for insurance and building requirements. Commonly known as a “100-year flood,” a base flood has a 1-percent chance of happening or being exceeded in any given year.

Christopher Belleman, executive director of the Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority that oversees the levee, has stressed the accreditation doesn’t change the levee’s proven effectiveness holding back the record high Susquehanna in 2011. The levee was designed for 41 feet with an additional 3-foot freeboard.

The flood authority plans to seek a grant to perform a new survey of the areas along the Wilkes-Barre/Hanover and Plymouth stretches to determine if any affordable projects can be completed to correct or compensate for the freeboard shortage, Belleman has said.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.


©2019 The Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)

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