Pennsylvania Historic Preservation

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Protecting against Future Floods: Floodproofing Workshops in PA

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During the week of August 13th, The Pennsylvania Silver Jackets hosted floodproofing workshops in York, Lewisburg, and Wellsboro, and the State Historic Preservation Office had a representative (me) there to answer questions from public officials and members of the public.

Now I’m sure you have a lot of questions. What are Silver Jackets? Why was PA SHPO there? What are Flood Proofing Workshops? These are all excellent questions; let’s address them one at a time and look at some example of real-life flood proofing projects and their effects on historic resources.

Pennsylvania Silver Jackets

To quote the Silver Jackets website, the “Pennsylvania Silver Jackets is an interagency team dedicated to working collaboratively with the commonwealth and appropriate stakeholders in developing and implementing solutions to flood hazards by combining available agency resources, which include funding, programs, and technical expertise.”

Silver Jackets – multiple agencies, one solution!

Why the name? Different agencies have specific colors they use for their jackets during emergency response (think blue FEMA jackets after Hurricane Katrina), but nobody had yet claimed silver, so it serves as a unifying color for all agencies. Every state except for Hawaii has a Silver Jackets team, and Pennsylvania’s meets quarterly in Harrisburg to plan outreach and discuss project opportunities.

Community outreach is one of the Silver Jackets’ priorities.

Flood Proofing Workshops

Each day included two workshops – one in the afternoon for public officials and one in the evening for members of the public.

People sitting at tables

Floodproofing workshop in Lewisburg, Union County, on August 15, 2018.

In the world of emergency management, floodproofing measures are a subset of hazard mitigation and are divided into two general categories: structural and non-structural. These workshops focused on non-structural floodproofing methods. Somewhat confusingly, “non-structural” floodproofing measures include lots of projects that directly affect, alter, move, or even demolish existing structures.

Structural floodproofing includes projects that involve building something new, such as a dam or levee, while non-structural floodproofing includes projects that include no construction or alterations to existing buildings. Basically, non-structural floodproofing includes everything than an individual property owner can do to her property.

This can include planning, relocating utilities above projected flood levels, filling in a basement, elevating, or even relocating a building to remove it from flood risk.

Hufnagle Park in Lewisburg, PA

While in Lewisburg, I had some time between meetings to explore the borough (and look for something to eat.) Walking down Market Street, I passed Hufnagle Park and saw families strolling along a stream. As it turns out, this park is an example of a large hazard mitigation project to reduce flood risks by increasing open space along the stream.

Stream in a park

Looking southeast along Bull Run in Lewisburg, PA in August 2018.

The Borough of Lewisburg collaborated with Bucknell University in 2004 to produce The Lewisburg Neighborhood Project, a plan to address a range of concerns including student housing availability and flood hazards. One of the central projects in the plan was the Bull Run Greenway, a system of parks, trails, and green spaces along a stream that runs through the borough.

In 2012 the Borough used federal funds to purchase and demolish ten private properties on 6th Street southwest of Bull Run that were at heightened risk of repeated flooding. These buildings were within the Lewisburg Historic District, so mitigation of this project was required in the form of recordation of the to-be-demolished buildings and their immediate context. In the photo above, the demolished structures would have been visible on the right-hand side. Below are some example photos provided in the recordation package.

Two story house

Lewisburg’s 102 South 6th Street in 2012, now demolished.

 

Two-story house

Lewisburg’s 112 & 114 South 6th Street in 2012, now demolished.

This type of project is often referred to as “demolition-acquisition”, and it is perhaps the most permanent form of hazard mitigation that FEMA funds. No funds will ever have to be spent on these properties again, and, by converting the land to permanent open space, surrounding properties could benefit as well. When a property is acquired using FEMA funds, it is required to remain open or park space in perpetuity. The next time it floods, water from Bull Run will have a little more space to flow and might not have as much of an impact on the houses across the street. Of course, ten buildings are now gone forever.

Peer State Example

There are hazard mitigation measures that can have less of a negative impact on historic buildings, but sometimes they require an extra level of creativity to balance hazard mitigation requirements with historic integrity.

As an example from outside of the commonwealth, new owners of the old Spaghetti Warehouse building in Houston, Texas are embarking on major rehabilitation project. The building is a contributing resource in the Main Street Market Square Historic District, but it backs up to Buffalo Bayou and was damaged by Hurricane Harvey.

As shown in the rendering below, the project would actually open the building up to water; in future floods, the bayou will be able to flow right through the back and side wall. The only fully enclosed and condition space will be on the second floor, and even that will be set back from the two newly opened walls.

Drawing of two-story brick building

Rendering of proposed changes to 901 Commerce; Houston Planning and Development.

Despite these changes, the owner intends to make full use of 901 Commerce with a bar on the second floor and market space on the first floor and basement. Food trucks will even be able to pull directly into the basement. This is, of course, a pretty extensive alteration to this building, but it might provide a thoughtful alternative for how to live with water without losing our built heritage.

And that brings us back to three days of workshops in central Pennsylvania. Bull Run flooded in 2011 in Lewisburg, and Houston is still recovering from Hurricane Harvey, so flooding remains front of mind.

Flooding is not a constant problem in most of our communities, but it is a continuous one. In times between disasters (what emergency managers refer to as “blue sky”), it’s easy to fall into familiar practices and forget to prepare for future flooding.

These three workshops happened to coincide with weeks of record rainfall in central PA, but even if they hadn’t, they were intended to remind people who the risk of flooding is not going away. Whether you own a home that might be damaged, or work for an agency or local community, there are things you can do to help safeguard against the next flood, and there are people and agencies available to answer questions and provide assistance.

 

John Gardosik is the Hurricane Sandy Recover Project Manager at the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office. Though new to Pennsylvania, he is married to a Lancaster native and is enjoying getting to know the Commonwealth.

Author: PHMC

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission is the official history agency of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

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