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PEMA, Local Officials Tout Gov. Wolf's Restore PA Plans for Flood Prevention and Recovery

by on September 04, 2019 6:26 PM

When Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency Director Randy Padfield is in Centre County, it's most often in the midst or aftermath of severe storm damage. But on Wednesday, under sunny skies in Bellefonte's Talleyrand Park, Padifeld was visiting to discuss what Pennsylvania can do to better mitigate and help recovery from natural disasters.

Padfield was joined by county and local officials to talk about the storm preparedness and disaster recovery aspects of Gov. Tom Wolf's sweeping infrastructure plan, Restore Pennsylvania, a proposed $4.5 billion package that would be funded by a natural gas severance tax and would also address a wide variety of issues — from broadband internet to business development to transportation.

Wolf's plan would establish funding for mitigation infrastructure and a disaster recovery fund.

Centre County Commissioners, Bellefonte Borough Council and State College Borough Council all have passed resolutions this year voicing support for Restore PA.

"From Centre County’s perspective, Restore PA, we believe, will increase the safety, security and resiliency of our communities here in Centre County and the safety, security and resiliency of our citizens," Board of Commissioners Chair Michael Pipe said.

Padfield said Pennsylvania is one of the nation's most flood-prone states and in conversations with residents and officials around the commonwealth he has frequently heard in recent years about flooding to an extent some places have never seen. PEMA worked with the National Weather Service to review all reported flooding events since 1993 and over that time 94 percent of incidents occurred outside of an established flood plain.

"That’s pretty telling. A lot of times we’re used to dealing with riverine flooding but when we look at significant precipitation events and you take a look at all of the climate data we’re seeing, the Northeast section of the United States is seeing more significant precipitation events where we have localized significant impact from a lot of precipitation in a very short period of time that drastically impacts these communities," Padfield said, citing the flooding in Milesburg and other parts of the county in the fall of 2016.

With more localized flooding events, the challenge is meeting thresholds required to receive federal disaster relief funding from FEMA. The state and counties need to experience a minimum amount of damage — for the commonwealth it's $19.1 million and in Centre County it's $600,000 based on a per capita formula.

The disaster also must be far-reaching and occur within a single time period. 

"When we have these weather systems that come through, if we have any intervening days where we don’t have precipitation, we can’t use that as the incident period," Padfield said. "A lot of these places have been hit repeatedly in a series of a week or two weeks with flash flooding."

Federal assistance to individuals, meanwhile, is based on a number of factors, such as what the state should be able to provide. The U.S. Small Business Administration also offers low-interest recovery loans, but those also come with their own set of criteria.

When Milesburg was struck by flooding in 2016, Pennsylvania did qualify for federal aid as heavy rains impacted a wide portion of the state and 11 applicants from Centre County received assistance. But last year, when heavy rain persisted throughout the summer and fall, Pennsylvania had only one flash-flooding incident period qualified for aid, to the tune of about $61 million.

Nevertheless, the commonwealth still had an additional $63 million in public infrastructure damage that wasn't covered. 

"We could not get to the threshold because the incidents were smaller, localized incidents and the incident period did not cover all of those and the federal government will not provide federal funding for those types of incidents," Padfield said

He added that for individual assistance the federal government uses about 800 homes that are significantly damaged or destroyed in one incident as a threshold. Last year, Pennsylvania had more than 5,200 homes damaged or destroyed by flooding, but the damage did not all occur in one incident period.

Restore PA would set up a disaster relief trust fund to allow the state government to assist individuals with damage not eligible for FEMA or SBA assistance.

"They don’t have the ability to qualify or we can’t get to the threshold for federal aid," Padfield said. "That gives them the ability to recover effectively. That’s really key for a lot of these smaller disasters that still have local impact and sometimes it takes people years to be able to recover on their own. We really want to build that resiliency in the communities and make sure we can help people recover in a cost-effective and timely manner."

Wolf's plan also would provide funding to municipalities for preventative measures such as stream bank restoration, levees or flood walls and stream restoration and maintenance.

That again is an area where federal funding is limited, Padfield said. The relief aid received by Pennsylvania in 2018 came with about $10 million for hazard mitigation projects. The state received 127 letters of interest for project funding that combined would total $59 million.

Padfield said that based on federal estimates, every $1 spent on mitigation results in about $7 saved in response and recovery.

"The challenge we run into is we have the ability to have some disaster mitigation funds available from the federal government but they’re really not available in the quantity we need to be able to do effective infrastructure projects to be able to save lives and remove people from the flooding threat," he said.

Bellefonte knows the value of mitigation infrastructure, borough council president Joanne Tosti-Vasey said. She pointed to the project along Spring Creek, completed in 2016 with Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program funds, that constructed a flood wall and raised the area for the future waterfront development on the north side of High Street out of the flood plain.

"Last year Spring Creek flooded twice. Because of that wall we had no problems over here," Tost-Vasey said. "We did have some flooding here in Talleyrand Park but it didn’t affect the safety of anyone...There are several other programs with Restore PA that I think are going to be helpful."

"The more that we can invest on the front end before emergencies occur, before flooding occurs, and mitigate those larger costs, really it’s truly an investment that helps with our future," Pipe added.

Restore Pennsylvania was unveiled by Wolf early in 2019 and legislation was introduced in June. The severance tax that would fund it was not part of the budget signed into law for 2019-20, as the Republican-controlled General Assembly and Democrat Wolf remain at odds over how best to gain economic benefit from gas drilling in the state. 

Pennsylvania does have an impact fee for natural gas companies, and that money is distributed to counties each year for a variety of projects. That would remain unchanged under Wolf's plan. PEMA also receives a portion of the fees, but that money is generally tied to well site planning and emergency response and training in counties most directly impacted by natural gas extraction.

Padfield said that funding the mitigation and recovery projects within the commonwealth is important because, with more localized flooding events, the commonwealth can't always rely on federal funding, which is set up to address disasters affecting a large majority or all of the state.

"We need to figure out what is the best model and how to move forward to be able to provide the services that we need so that the local municipalities are not competing with limited funding on what they can do and what they can’t do," Padfield said. "Obviously budgets are tight. And really [we need] to provide the dollars necessary to be able to provide effective recovery for the folks that are most drastically impacted."

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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