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"The dangers brought on by climate change are affecting Pennsylvania communities right now, endangering both lives and livelihoods. These types of storms often fail to reach the thresholds for federal disaster aid, which leave municipalities and the state struggling to cover millions of dollars in recovery costs," Gov. Wolf said. "We need to take immediate steps to mitigate those dangers and protect Pennsylvanians, especially as so many are already struggling financially due to the COVID-19 pandemic."
The governor, joined by state Sen. Anthony H. Williams (D-Philadelphia/Delaware) and House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia/Delaware) at a virtual press conference today, announced a plan that will address flood hazard mitigation by requiring the State Planning Board to develop a series of recommendations and best practices relative to land use, planning, zoning, and storm water management, with the emphasis on reducing the incidence of flash flooding in communities that impacts citizens and businesses. The State Planning Board will establish state goals and strategic investments to assist municipalities, which will then be incorporated by state agencies into their appropriate funding applications.
Sen. Williams and Leader McClinton, who represent the communities of Eastwick in Philadelphia and Darby in Delaware County, highlighted the communities' experiences with flooding from nearby Darby Creek, which has increased due to climate change, commercial and residential development, and natural flow of the creek downstream.
"I'd first like to thank Governor Wolf for his leadership and attention to this growing issue. To the residents of Eastwick, Darby, and other flood-prone locations across the commonwealth, today is an important first step in ensuring that our homes and businesses are safe from the growing threat of climate change," Sen. Williams said. "As severe weather escalates, we must all work together proactively to prevent the type of widespread damage seen in Eastwick this past summer and to prepare our communities to respond appropriately when it happens."
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"I'm proud to stand with Senator Williams and the people of Southwest Philadelphia, and to thank Governor Wolf and his team for taking swift executive action to try to mitigate the damage of flooding caused by climate change. Unfortunately, the General Assembly has failed to act on the Governor's Restore PA plan calling for a commonsense severance tax to pay for important safety protocols like flood mitigation plans, upgrades to flood walls, and a Pennsylvania disaster relief fund to help our home and business owners affected by flooding. I look forward to working on these important issues in the new legislative session," House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton said.
According to a 2015 Department of Environmental Protection Climate Impacts Assessment, Pennsylvania has seen a 10 percent increase in average yearly precipitation over the last century. By 2050, the average yearly precipitation is projected to increase by another 8 percent.
For many parts of the commonwealth, 2018 was the wettest year on record, with heavy rains demonstrating that our flood mitigation planning and infrastructure has not kept up with changing precipitation patterns. Many of these storms we are experiencing due to climate change are intense over a very short duration. Due to the short duration of these types of storms, the damages from these events rarely reach the thresholds for the commonwealth to request federal disaster aid assistance.
There are two programs within the Federal Emergency Management Agency that can provide federal aid after a flooding disaster: public assistance and individual assistance. Public assistance provides reimbursements to state, county and local governments and eligible nonprofits for costs associated with response and recovery efforts. Each county included in a public assistance request must meet a cost threshold based on population and, in turn, the commonwealth overall must meet a threshold of $19.5 million in damage costs. Individual assistance includes a wide range of programs for homeowners and renters, including cash grants, housing or home repair assistance.
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In 2018 in Pennsylvania, more than 5,000 homes were damaged in a series of incidents, but no single incident met the threshold. That year there was also approximately $63 million in public infrastructure damages alone that were not reimbursable through federal disaster programs.
"We cannot depend on federal aid as a reliable source of funding to recover from disasters, since the thresholds to qualify for assistance increase every year," said Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) Director Randy Padfield. "Federal data shows that every dollar spent on mitigation saves on average, six dollars in recovery, so mitigation not only saves lives and property but it's also the fiscally smart thing to do."
Major rehabilitations to Pennsylvania's 120 flood control facilities, such as flood walls, levees, and channel improvements, are the responsibility of the commonwealth. Of those, only 68 of those facilities meet the eligibility criteria established by the Army Corps of Engineers Emergency Rehabilitation Program. The rest are ineligible for rehabilitation coverage under this program. That means costly repairs to these facilities after flood events would be borne by the sponsor municipality and the commonwealth.
Additionally, as land is developed for residential and commercial use, stormwater runoff can cause stream impairment.
"With increased precipitation projected in the years to come, it is critical that we lay the groundwork now to implement flood hazard mitigation efforts and protect our communities and businesses," said Dennis Davin, Secretary of the Department of Community and Economic Development. "As weather conditions continue to change, major storms and flooding have the potential to devastate counties across the state. These are spaces that are important to us—our homes, our family and neighbors' homes. It's the financial stability of our favorite small businesses, and our places of employment. The work we do today will better prepare us for not only the immediate impact of severe storms and flooding, but also the long-term recovery that follows."
As the 2019-20 legislative session comes to an end, there is currently no imminent plan by lawmakers to address this issue or to consider the governor's Restore Pennsylvania plan, which would provide funding to help towns and cities prepare for flooding and severe weather, upgrade flood walls and levees, replace high-hazard dams, and conduct stream restoration and maintenance, as well as establish a disaster relief trust fund to assist Pennsylvanians who suffer losses that are not compensated by the federal government.
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