(WHTM) — Fifty years ago, the remains of Hurricane Agnes swelled the Susquehanna River to record levels. In the years since then, communities along the river have gotten upgrades to their flood prevention infrastructure, but lofty plans to boost Harrisburg’s protection from another Agnes-style flood never got off the drawing board.
There have been many proposals for flood control projects in the Harrisburg area. There were federal studies in the 1930s and ’40s, but no action was taken. Then Agnes happened.
A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control plan developed after Agnes called for a 12-foot-high concrete wall to be built along Paxton Street, stretching almost three-quarters of a mile from Cameron to Mulberry and Second streets. The plan included protection from the flood-prone Paxton Creek.
“It divides the city when it overflows, and the Paxton Creek will flood sooner and faster and more extensively than the Susquehanna River will,” former Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed said in an abc27 report from 1982, 10 years after Agnes.
A proposal for a wall along the Susquehanna River was cut because it was too expensive.
Now, 50 years after Agnes, the $117 million plan still has not gone anywhere.
“I am not sure why that wasn’t actually implemented,” said Stacey Underwood, Silver Jackets coordinator for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Baltimore District. The Silver Jacket program works with federal, state, and local agencies to reduce flood risk.
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Underwood explained that for the feds to fund a flood management plan, the benefits have to outweigh the costs.
“The benefits in this type of project would be the reduction in future flood damages to that community, so we would compare that with the cost of actually building the project, and if the benefits outweigh the cost so that the benefit-to-cost ratio is greater than one, then we could pursue it and actually cost-share with the sponsor and implement the project. But if the benefit-cost ratio is less than one, federal funds cannot be used to construct it. It would have to be up to the local municipality,” Underwood said.
Underwood says she is not aware of any proposed plans for the Harrisburg area right now, but she says big steps have been taken to improve flood information, which she says would be a critical advantage if another Agnes ever came along.
“We developed flood inundation mapping for Harrisburg,” Underwood said. “It’s a great tool to help emergency managers.” The tool is tied to the National Weather Service’s stream gauge and shows where flooding could occur, helping officials prepare for flooding and even evacuate people if needed.
Another big change after Agnes — flood insurance. The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency says when Agnes hit, few people had flood insurance. Now there are regulated floodplains, and flood insurance is mandatory for properties in certain flood zones.