COMMUNITY DISASTER RECOVERY: IT IS NOT GETTING EASIER
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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. CMS-9632458. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
Recently, I made a field trip to Scranton, Pennsylvania (July 24-25) to look into the city's recovery from the major flooding that occurred throughout the state in mid-January 1996. The trip was initiated by a staff member at FEMA's Emergency Management Institute, who wanted a current and realistic case study of a community that was having trouble recovering from a recent flood disaster. I combined that work with a quick response grant in order to review this case study in the context of early case studies and cross case analyses.
In this report I will first provide a brief, factual account of the recovery process in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and then offer some observations, comments, and opinions about the difficulties of the recovery process. Given the short period of time spent on-site, there may be errors of fact and of perception. The author welcomes corrections and comments from readers.
Nevertheless, some of the infrastructure and housing stock are relatively old. For example, almost 75% of the housing stock was built before 1939. Among the older and most flood-prone residential structures are those in the Nay Aug neighborhood. That low-to-moderate income neighborhood, which was badly impacted by the January floods, will be a focal point for this case example of recovery. The case is framed from the perspective of the local level.
The city's economic health is such that it is considered a financially depressed community by state law. Under this status, state regulations control the amount of local expenditures in an effort to prevent local public insolvency. The city council was required to enact a financial recovery plan and make certain cutbacks to keep the city solvent. There are limits on payouts for capital improvements, and there are controls on use of city funds and also on Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds. In short, because of the city's financial problems, the city has less latitude to use its own funds, as well as those from the CDBG (which is limited to use in low- and moderate-income areas) for flood-related projects.
As would be expected in a community with financial problems, local efforts at job generation are significant, and stimulating the economic base is a primary focus of local public and civic leaders. As is often true in other cities, strong economic pressures can come into conflict with environmental protection and disaster reduction measures.
Scranton, along with many other Pennsylvania cities, has a long, troubled history of flooding from the many rivers in the state. In fact, Pennsylvania has 45,000 miles of waterways, the most of any state in the U.S. [Scranton Times, March 15]. In January, 1996, a rare combination of weather and other factors led to flooding and ice jams throughout the state. Severe winter weather had generated snowfalls roughly 40 inches above normal, and roughly four or five days of below freezing temperatures had kept much of that snow on the ground. The floods caused 14 deaths and more than $1 billion in property damage in the river basin area. The estimated damage to publicly owned property (roads, bridges, and buildings) in the state was estimated at between $400 and $500 million [Philadelphia Enquirer, April 22]. The flooding in Scranton occurred on January 19, 1996; it was estimated to be somewhere between the 33-year and 100-year floods that have occurred in the region.
Immediately after the flood, Governor Ridge (Republican) aggressively pressed the Clinton Administration for maximum federal aid. The Presidential disaster declaration, which eventually did include all of the counties in the state, opened up the possibility of more federal programs for the impacted areas. Over a period of several weeks, FEMA extended declaration #1093 to cover all 67 counties in Pennsylvania, including thousands of municipalities. This meant all of the counties were eligible for low interest loans and other federal assistance tied to a disaster declaration. FEMA amended the original declaration several times so that all of the counties were eligible for public assistance and hazard mitigation grants. (In addition to this January declaration, by the end of July 1996, FEMA granted two additional declarations for flooding in some of the Pennsylvania counties.)
The subsequent response and recovery efforts at the state level were affected by some recent changes in state agencies. The governor abolished the Department of Community Affairs, an agency that in the past had aided disaster impacted communities with recovery and mitigation planning and implementation. The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA), was responsible for all 67 counties in the state and thousands of municipalities. PEMA had to come up with staff, augmented with contractors, to provide hazard mitigation assistance as well as other guidance and assistance to the large number of municipalities eligible to apply for federal disaster assistance.
Prior to the floods, city, county and State agency officials had several exchanges on the topic of storm water run off. The State Department of Environmental Protection had reviewed the storm water runoff ordinances enacted at local level (county and city), but said it could not enforce them. Yet, it was known that the municipalities were not enforcing the existing ordinances; this was usually because to do so would add cost to development projects and discourage new business.
In the past, the city and county have placed great reliance on structural mitigation measures. At the present time, however, both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and FEMA have made it clear to disaster-impacted communities that they are not likely to take on long-term, expensive, structural mitigation measures.
By way of background, there are a number of income and personal characteristics of the victims in the Nay Aug neighborhood that made recovery even more difficult: a large number of relatively low-income residents, including large numbers of elderly and handicapped victims of the flood. These characteristics raise questions about the victims' mobility, ability and interest in moving. Even if buyouts were possible, many homeowners would receive only the market value for their homes, and their ability to buy replacement housing would be quite limited.
At the local level, the sequence of steps that were taken by citizens and local officials are outlined below.
By way of background, FEMA and PEMA prepared a State/Federal Hazard Mitigation Strategy, required as a condition of the Presidential declaration; in this case the strategy was drafted but not published. This document provides at least the broad outlines of a strategy and is the basis for deciding on a dollar amount to be allocated to mitigation. According to the deputy federal coordinating officer for this declared disaster, the strategy document was used by both state and federal mitigation officials as a general work plan; it did not contain city-specific information.
The city of Scranton's first step was to request $90 million for buyouts, when the mayor forwarded to state officials pre-application for funding through the federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) to acquire and demolish an estimated 1,000 structures in the Plot Section, Park Place, and Lower Green Ridge [Scranton Times, February 18]. Participation was to be voluntary.
The city also submitted an application for a second, $20 million program, to build "accessory rooms," which are rooms located above the base flood elevation for people who chose to remain in homes in the flood plain. It was explained that the strategy was to accommodate both those who wanted to move and those who did not [Scranton Times, February 18]. It is not known whether this technique has been used elsewhere in the state and with what success.
In mid-February, local frustration was growing over long-promised structural flood control projects, to be paid for primarily by the USACE. Since some of the Nay Aug residents had experienced as many as four floods, they too were frustrated by lack of flood controls or likely relocation options. Headlines in local papers included: "Flood Residents Fed up with Promises" [Scranton Tribune, February 13]; and "Nay Aug Ave. Residents Want Out" [Scranton Times, February 13th]. In late February, FEMA officials agreed to pay for most of the temporary flood control work along the Lackawanna River in order to head off spring floods.
Negative indications about the likelihood of wholesale buyouts were given to the city by FEMA federal coordinating officer, Jack Schuback, in early March. The local paper quoted him as saying that "Wholesale buyouts in Scranton's flood-prone neighborhoods are less likely than snow in July." FEMA had allocated a total of $20 million for buyouts in the entire state; yet in Scranton a request was made for $110 million [Scranton Times, March 5].
An editorial in the local paper on March 7th was critical of both local and state actions. The writer noted that "U.S. can't buy out all flood victims," and went on to note that " victims' disappointment was only natural and that unreasonably high expectation played a part." It commented that "the Connors administration alone asked FEMA for $110 million in flood relief money after cavalierly making promises, in some cases, that it knew it could not keep. Moreover, it is likely that local governments would be able to meet required local shares for emergency relief if FEMA's contributions were significantly higher." The editorial went on to criticize the state government, about which it said, "Governor Tom Ridge, who has criticized Clinton and FEMA and championed the Republican drive for 'states'rights,' should consider a long-term state program for floodplain buyouts. The objective is to lessen the damage of future flooding, a goal in which the state obviously has a heavy stake." The final comment was, "And while he's at it, the governor should instruct the Dept. of Environmental Protection to reverse course on a change in its permit process that will make possible further development of wetlands that play a significant role in flood control [Scranton Times, March 7].
A few months later, the city's request for a buyout of flooded residential properties received preliminary rejection by the state, via PEMA [Scranton Tribune, May 2]. The state agency noted that feds will not even consider projects with cost-benefit ratios of less than one. Nay Aug/Electric streets area rated between .17 and .38; Albright Avenue came in at .84. City planner Quinn indicated a plan to refile the application. [Details of how these cost-benefit ratios were calculated and by whom are not known at this time.]
Five months into the process, it appears that the local officials were not clear on what PEMA and FEMA would consider, regarding acceptable cost/benefit ratios and upper limits on financial requests. The city prepared and filed a series of applications and they were rejected, with months of waiting in between actions.
Mayor Jim Connors sought another possible source of help to control the Lackawanna River, when he asked the National Guard to help in flood control work [Scranton Times, March 22]. Previously, he had requested assistance from USACE and been turned down.
Subsequently, FEMA turned down $1 million requested for Lindy and Keyser Creek and Meadowbrook flood projects; the state hazard mitigation officer indicated that the money ($750,00 federal and the rest local) possibly could be used by the city for buyouts [Scranton Times, March 30].
On May 2, the Scranton Times noted that PEMA refused flood buyouts: "PEMA has rejected the buyout funding, although the city has another chance to resubmit its application for buyout funding. Cost-benefit numbers did not work out, according to PEMA. Final decision is to be made in July." [See the postscript, for additional decisions made in August.]
PEMA was reconsidering flood buyouts for 42 homes that the city says are repeatedly flooded. Officials at both the local and federal levels were concerned that the only NFIP/FIRM maps were done in 1980; everyone agrees on the need for updated hydrologic maps. [The status of the request to FEMA was unknown as of late July 1996.]
From interviews with local officials and with victims in the Nay Aug area, it was clear that they did not think that the FEMA staff provided adequate information about available programs, in terms of current availability and/or consistency. The citizens were especially angry about the fact that Disaster Assistance Program information sheets handed out were not accurate. The Hazard Mitigation Program apparently was used in a very limited way by FEMA and was not available to most, according to the local citizen activist leader in Nay Aug. Further, the citizens were critical of the people answering the FEMA "Help Line," because they did not give full or consistent information.
"Requests for funding from a federal grant program are nearly double the amount of money the city will have on hand this year after it deducts outstanding obligations and its own operational expenses" [Scranton Times, March 18].
As was noted earlier, Scranton has certain constraints in how it uses CDBG funds, given its financial status. The issue for all local governments using HMGP funds is how to come up with the 25% match requirement.
According to the FEMA deputy federal coordinating office for mitigation, the state reviewed all of the buyout requests from all of the municipalities in the state and then made decisions. Since the state received requests for funds that reached 10 times the actual amount available, decision making was difficult. PEMA has made acquisition of vulnerable property a priority and will spend about $16 million of the approximately $20 million available for buyouts.
In Scranton, problems occurred at the city, county, sub-state regional, state, and federal levels in providing assistance to the victims of the flood. The problems were due in part to the fact that all 67 counties in the state were included in the Presidential declaration, and the number of municipalities affected numbered in the thousands. The federal and state emergency management agencies, as well as the Red Cross, apparently could not provide assistance in an effective and equitable manner to all of those municipalities affected. The city of Scranton, which has a declining population and economic problems, appears to be having an especially hard time recovering.
Many of the problems that Scranton is experiencing were due to certain conditions and circumstances that existed before the l996 flood. These include its economic and financial concerns, and poor city/county government relationships. Additional problems were caused by changes at the state level, including the governor's recent dissolution of the Department of Community Affairs, an agency that in the past had helped cities cope with disaster recovery. In my view, it is surprising that in a state with such a frequent history of damaging floods, the state and local agencies do not seem to think about floods in a comprehensive or long-term way. The organization and planning structure for planning and investing in mitigative measures aimed at correcting hazards and reducing risks do not appear to be effective, at each level of government.
Recovery from disaster has always been a difficult process for disaster-impacted communities, and it does not appear to be getting any easier. Researchers and public practitioners have known for some time that strategic planning for mitigation and recovery is desirable. In fact, the federal Interagency Hazard Mitigation Team requirement is intended to contribute to such strategic planning. Ideally, strategic planning would mean a long-term comprehensive planning effort that encompasses a vision of how the community should look (i.e., redevelopment of community systems and structures that includes some community betterment projects - not just a replication of what existed before), and a strategy for assembling the means to implement the plan.
The PA Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) and FEMA did not come up with a Hazard Mitigation Strategy (the successor to the Hazard Mitigation Plan) promptly after the disaster event. No Hazard Mitigation Strategy paper was made public, although a working draft exists, as far as I know. Hence, there was no strategic framework for thinking about mitigation. Concomitantly, no clear-cut information about total federal funding was made available in the early months, so that the state and the municipalities could in fact put together a reasonable recovery plan.
The difficulties that Scranton officials encountered are predictable for the most part, and not significantly different from troubled recoveries observed for many years. Unfortunately, poor recoveries remain all too common [see Popkin and Rubin (1991), "Disaster Recovery After Hurricane Hugo in South Carolina," Natural Hazards Working Paper #69, Boulder, Colorado: Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado; and Rubin et al., 1991].
Recovery problems at the community level have been described and analyzed during the past two decades by numerous researchers, including this author. Some successes have been documented (for example, Mittler, 1996, not yet published), but they are all too few.
Getting back to understanding the Scranton difficulties, earlier research results on disaster recovery can be used as a basis for analyzing what conditions and factors do or do not contribute to a prompt and effective recovery in Scranton. The recovery research done by Rubin et al (1985, 1991) provides a set of key factors or determinants of an efficient recovery.
Source: C.B.Rubin, ICMA Green Book (1991).
The Scranton case study outlines the various problems that the city has experienced in planning its recovery for the first six months after the flood disaster. Many of those difficulties could have been predicted, based on the factors outlined above. Nevertheless, some levels of government (county, state, and federal) provided less assistance and less information than is normally expected, and collectively they have not (yet) provided the extra help Scranton needs to overcome its problems.