White: Borough must certify levee or face flood plain tag

PUNXSUTAWNEY — Punxsutawney Borough Council has been given a choice to either pay for a study to re-certify the Mahoning Creek flood levee, or have much of the borough classified as a flood plain by the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA).

“If we don’t get the levee certified to the current federal standards, FEMA will decertify the dike as if it doesn’t exist,” said Borough Manager Ben White.

“This would be a horrible thing, as 75 percent of the town would be declared a flood plain, which would make building permits very difficult to attain,” he said. “Property insurance in that area would become very expensive.”

White said there is quite a bit to acquire the certification, and the borough doesn’t have a choice.

Brian Sekula, EADS Group borough engineer, presented council with an outline of the study and asked for an approximate cost, which has not yet been received.

White said the reason FEMA is requesting this information is because of what occurred in New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

“I just received the memo from EADS regarding the study, and there is quite a bit to do, and it must be completed by the end of the year,” he said. “Unfortunately, I don’t think we have much choice.”

Council member Toby Santik said failure to act could turn into an ugly situation, as the study calls for an evaluation through engineering analysis of the levee embankment stability.

Council member Eric Story asked if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the levee is the best it can be, why must the borough abide by the Uniform Construction Code?

“If we don’t accept these codes, then we can’t obtain insurance for all of our properties,” Story said, adding that council wants to be sure that dike walls are also sound.

“What if, after we do all of this, and pay all of this money for this study to be done, and then down the road, the state or federal government tells us we have to do something else in order avoid being declared a flood plane?” Story said.

White said according to the current flood insurance rate maps, the Mahoning Creek Levee is listed as a provisionally accredited levee.
“The entire whole downtown would be classified as a flood plain,” he said.

Council member William Spencer joked that it might be easier and cheaper to rebuild the downtown on higher ground.

Story said he understands the borough must perform the study performed, but it’s an added expense, and FEMA isn’t going to give the borough any money for it.

“We’re not the only ones in this position,” White said. “This is why I want Brian Sekula to provide the borough with a probable cost as to what the certification is going to cost us.”

He said council should proceed with the study and have a certified professional engineer put his or her seal on it.

“If someone wants to question the validity of it, then we’ll have to deal with that down the road,” White said.

Spencer asked if there were any other engineering firms that could perform the study. White replied that due to time constraints and a Dec. 31 deadline, there isn’t time to look at any other firms, and EADS has already performed preliminary work.

“The Army Corps built the levee, but we have the total responsibility for maintenance and keeping it up to standards,” White said.

Santik said one could have every point covered, and FEMA could still kick it back.

“The whole town is hanging in the balance,” he said.

“There are no guarantees that the levee meets the certification requirements,” White said. “Hopefully, it’s fine the way that it is. We need to know if it is sound anyway.”

Council approved a motion to proceed with the study with EADS.

Also at Monday’s meeting, council:
• Approved a public hearing to vacate an unnamed alley off Route 436.

• Approved holding a public hearing to vacate an unnamed alley off Pattison Street.

• Approved the Community Center’s 5K/2 mile race at 7 p.m. July 3 as part of the Groundhog Festival.

• Approved movie nights at the George C. Brown Community Pool.

• Approved hiring Michelle O’Brian as a pool concession stand employee.