Funding for floods in southwest Philadelphia in the Eastwick neighborhood?

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Brenda Whitfield’s house on Saturn Place seemed like the ideal place to raise a family when she moved to the street bordering a low-lying field in the Eastwick neighborhood of southwest Philadelphia over 40 years ago.

“We just knew we were buying land in a neighborhood with the top 10 schools,” said Whitfield. Pregnant with her second child at the time, that was a top priority.

Two decades later, in 1999, the local middle school their children attended suffered a 9-foot flood that caused over $ 1 million in damage. “People often ask why you are moving to a floodplain,” said Whitfield, “but you are moving because the realtors don’t mention it.”

Eastwick, a predominantly black neighborhood with an average annual income of $ 40,000, is one of many colored communities across the country disproportionately affected by urban flooding. It sits at the lowest point in town and is surrounded by water – Darby and Cobbs Creek to the west and the Schuylkill River to the east.

As the storms intensified in the wake of climate change, the area was hit again and again. The infrastructure plan signed by President Joe Biden in mid-November provides billions for FEMA to help communities prepare for climate disasters. While there is a movement to make Eastwick one of the places the plan has been helping, it is still unclear whether this will happen.

In the US, people of color are over-represented in flood hotspots, according to a study published in Natural Hazards this year. Eastwick homeowners have noticed.

Leo Brundage, a retired ironworker and long-time resident, does not feel prioritized in his neighborhood. “I ask myself: is that because of the demographics of the community?”

Whitfield, now a grandmother, repeated Brundage’s concern. There have always been “minor floods,” she said, but “nobody wanted to listen to a middle-class neighborhood where black people move in.”

It was not until the four-foot floods caused by Hurricane Floyd in 1999 that the city became alert, she said. The Army Corps of Engineers has been conducting flood control studies since Floyd, but residents are frustrated with the lack of real results.

In October the Corps presented its study to the Eastwick Ward advisory group.

Brundage, who acts as the advisory group leader, said he was tired of hearing about new studies. Another meeting is planned and he hopes the officials will say something specific, “whether they want to help us or not”.

When Hurricane hit Isaias in 2020, Brundage said it caused over $ 60,000 in damage.

“I’m 77 years old and I try to live the little life that has been best for me,” he said. “Not having this post-traumatic stress because we are flooded every time it rains.”

Courtesy Phyllis Glenn

72-year-old Phyllis Glenn’s house is on the same street as the house Whitfield bought 40 years ago: Saturn Place. It runs along the edge of a field that borders Cobbs Creek, which is regularly flooded during storms.

The situation makes night rain “really scary,” said Glenn, because you can’t keep an eye on the rising water. She stood on her porch and took care of her little grandson. She called the ongoing flooding “absolutely devastating”.

She inherited her home from her father, who she saw tackle Hurricane Floyd. When Hurricane Ida hit this year, Glenn said, the water crept up halfway up the field.

Many neighbors spend time staring out the back windows when it rains. “You develop PTSD,” said educator Sharon Truxon, 55. “We have to keep rebuilding,” she added, “and at some point you don’t have the resources.”

One year after Isaias, the basketball courts behind Saturn Place remain eroded by water damage, so that children are no longer able to shoot hoops.

Whitfield said the adjacent recreation center was also flooded – a space that used to be a vibrant home for community activities. Whitfield fondly remembered meeting there for crochet classes while others were playing elite games.

The community received a grant to restore the center, neighbors said, but work has been delayed until recently.

The surface of Eastwick's basketball courts is still in disrepair
Megan Ruggles

Following Hurricane Isaias, the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management conducted a damage assessment in Eastwick and neighboring counties through an online survey that recruited and contacted political and community leaders.

Based on this information, Governor Tom Wolf requested a major disaster statement and public support for counties such as Philadelphia. A government spokeswoman, Elizabeth Rementer, said her application had been denied.

However, Rementer said some federal aid was provided in the form of soft loans through the US Small Business Administration.

It’s not the same as emergency relief, stressed Whitfield. “We were told, ‘You can get a low-interest loan,'” she said. “Without the Red Cross there would have been no help without us helping ourselves.”

Josh Lippert, head of the floodplain for the city of Philadelphia, said the infrastructure and investment bill would put a lot of money into FEMA programs to help potentially climate-vulnerable communities like Eastwick.

According to a spokesman for the Office for Emergency Management, the city is submitting six projects for various FEMA aid programs to the State Office for Emergency Management for review.

Whether or not Eastwick receives aid through these grants depends on both state and FEMA approval. Whitman hopes it is. She also hopes to make progress on the program to relocate residents from the floodplain – but she will be sad to leave.

“When we moved to this neighborhood,” said Whitfield, “it’s like any neighborhood – you want to leave a legacy for generations to come.”

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