WEST PITTSTON — Bob Russin came prepared for U.S. Sen. Bob Casey’s visit to the town that was hit hard by the flooding of 2011.
Russin and his wife live on Susquehanna Avenue — right in the middle of what Russin calls “Wyoming Valley’s spill basin.”
Russin told Casey that ever since levees were built and heightened to the north and south of West Pittston, the chance of flooding and the depth of flood waters has increased dramatically.
Meeting at Agolino’s Restaurant on Luzerne Avenue Friday morning, a group of residents listened to Casey, former Luzerne County Engineer Jim Brozena and Mayor Thomas “Harry” Blaskiewicz talk about what has been done in the last five years and what they hope to get accomplished going forward.
Topping the residents’ list was the issue of constructing levees along the Susquehanna River. In the past, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has determined that the cost to build the levees would not be justified by the value of the properties they would protect.
Brozena said the Army Corps is nearing completion of a study that re-examines the feasibility of a dike project and that report should be released by the end of the year. However, even if a multi-million dollar levee project is approved, it would be “years and years” before it is completed, Brozena said.
With that reality set aside, Brozena and Casey discussed other possible measures that could be taken to alleviate the amount of damage another flood could do.
Many of the town’s residents have asked to have their homes elevated, to decrease the amount of damage during high waters. Brozena said the Federal Emergency Management Agency prohibits basements in homes in the flood plain. Basements usually house a home’s heating unit, its electrical center and other necessary utilities.
Residents also were concerned about the ever-rising cost of flood insurance. Brozena said flood insurance rates go up about 18 percent each year, with no end in site.
Russin presented Casey with petitions with about 1,500 signatures of people in favor of a levee project for West Pittston.
“While the rest of the valley has experienced flood protection, West Pittston has experienced nothing but flood enhancement,” Russin said. “It’s time to right the flooded ship.”
Casey said he walked the streets of West Pittston immediately after the flood waters receded and he said the looks on the faces of the affected people impacted him significantly. He said he saw the same looks on the faces of people all across the eastern half of the state who were hit hard by the 2011 flood.
“I stood in this building (Agolino’s) when it was just a shell,” Casey said. “This building serves as a symbol of how you all have recovered.”
Casey said despite the way West Pittston and other towns have come back after the flood, there remains “a long way to go.” He told the residents he will work to make flood insurance affordable and he will advocate for a levee system to be built by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Blaskiewicz and Councilwoman Judy Aita told Casey about the number of residents who have taken buyouts from FEMA. They said the borough has lost many dollars from its tax base and more revenue from the loss of other taxes, such as taxes collected via business sales and earned income.
John Kearns, of West Pittston Tomorrow, gave Casey a sign that read “Levee Now” and was signed by several residents.
“The emphasis has been on demolition and buyouts,” Aita said. “Our tax base is affected and, more importantly, our vitality as a community has been damaged. Many of our residents have come back by using their private money because that’s how much they love this community.”
Kearns said residents and businesses want options other than the FEMA buyout.
Russin asked Casey to use his influence to set up a meeting with Vice President Joe Biden or President Barack Obama to allow West Pittston to be heard.
“West Pittston deserves a chance to survive the next flood,” Russin said.
After the meeting, Casey walked along some of the affected areas. He visited a vacant lot that the borough wants to convert to a senior citizens park and where two adjacent homes untouched since the 2011 flood still sit.
Joseph Agolino was sitting outside his restaurant, a popular spot for West Pittston residents and people from throughout Wyoming Valley.
Asked if he would come back if another flood hit, Agolino shook his head.
“I really don’t know,” he said. “This last one crippled me. I love this town and the people. But I really don’t know.”
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.