River towns like Morrisville and Yardley prepare for flooding and hurricane season.
By Jack Firneno
The weather may be getting warmer, but last winter’s storms can still give Bucks County residents the chills. And, this month heralds in another round of weather woes: hurricane season.
The good news is winter weather is unrelated to summer storms. And, the climate prediction center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecasts a slightly below-average number of severe hurricanes this year. But, the bad news is that none of those factors necessarily mean the season will be a clear one.
“Don’t ever use [the seasonal outlook] as a guide to prepare,” cautioned Dennis Feltgen, NOAA meteorologist and spokesman. “You have to go into every season prepared to get hit. And that’s from Texas to Maine.”
A hurricane’s severity is measured by its wind power. Category 3 storms, with winds between 111 and 129 mph, and above are considered severe. But, wind isn’t nearly as dangerous as water.
“Almost half [the people killed in hurricanes] are killed by storm surge. Then, up to 25 percent are killed by inland flooding,” said Feltgen.
For towns like Yardley or Morrisville, storm categories don’t mean much when it comes to flood preparation. Both towns sit right of the Delaware River, and it doesn’t take a huge storm to cause catastrophe.
“Because of our topography, we’re a bull’s-eye for flooding,” said Wes Foraker, Yardley’s emergency management coordinator.
In 2011, for instance, both towns were left relatively unscathed by Hurricane Irene. The flooding and power outages came a week later when Tropical Storm Lee hit. And, Superstorm Sandy was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it hit Pennsylvania – but still left those towns without power for about a week each.
“We really got pounded by the residents after that, and rightfully so,” admitted Foraker.
But, Yardley was prepared with warming and charging stations and better communication with residents when this year’s ice storm left many of them without power.
“It seemed to go very well,” said Foraker. “It was a hard lesson but we learned it.”
Yardley is also helping residents rise above flooding — literally. The town works with homeowners and businesses to physically elevate homes and buildings anywhere from four to 10 feet so they’re above the flood plain level in prone areas.
Contractors cut the sill plates that connect the house to its foundation and use jacks to elevate the structure. Then, they install temporary lifts as they rebuild the foundation.
“It’s a pretty neat process,” said Foraker. “They can raise a house 10 feet in about eight hours.”
Much of the work is paid for through FEMA grants, with homeowners paying out of pocket for the remainder. The new foundations can’t be used as living space if the construction used federal money.
Currently, around 20 structures in Yardley are raised, and the town met with 14 more landowners last week to gauge interest in more.
The dwellings in nearby Morrisville aren’t in the same positions to benefit from a similar effort, explained Bob Seward, the town’s emergency management coordinator. But, flooding is never far from his mind.
“It’s non-stop,” said Seward. “I go on [weather websites] three to six times a day to see what it’s doing, where it’s coming from and what the height of the river is.”
Morrisville sits on a narrow part of the Delaware Canal, where water can easily bottleneck. The town has a levee and a spillway that accommodates overflow. But surges on the river from storms as far as New York state can cause overflow when it reaches Morrisville sometimes up to two days later.
Once the river reaches 28 feet — it usually sits around 25 — streets like South Delmore Avenue and East Philadelphia Avenue can flood.
So, Seward regularly checks Yahoo! Weather, the National Weather Service, the Weather Channel and more. “It’s amazing how different each one is. That’s why I bounce around,” he explained.
When needed, Morrisville uses two eight-inch pumps and three fire trucks to divert water from the spillway back into the river. The town also maintains a 40-foot trailer filled with sandbags that are delivered to residents upon request. And, officials go door-to-door with evacuation announcements. “We have great communication between the public works, police, fire and ambulance,” said Seward. “Everybody works as a team.”
This year, to help teams like these, the NOAA is adding a new resource: an interactive storm surge flooding map on its website.
The map will appear whenever a hurricane watch is in effect. It updates every six hours with how high storm surges from oceans are predicted in any given area – a potential threat even inland, where a powerful storm can send surges of salt water through rivers like the Delaware.
Feltgen said the map makes surge warnings are easy to understand: “It’s visual: If you’re six feet tall and there’s a storm surge of nine feet-plus, you’ll be at least three feet underwater.”
It also serves as extra impetus for people to follow evacuation orders. “The social science research shows people will question [orders]. They’re leaving their homes and possessions. People want confirmation, and here it is: where you live, you’ll be three feet under water,” he said. “The last thing we want is for you to become a statistic.”
For information or to view storm surge maps, visit www.hurricanes.gov.