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Joanne Graham is on her hands and knees on the hardwood floor where her dining room table used to be. She balances billiard balls on the floor and watches them roll to the southwest corner of her house. She then proceeds to walk the perimeter of the floor, feeling it dip in certain places as she moves closer to the southwest corner. Graham’s house is sinking.
It is an indicator of the decades-old problem of catastrophic flooding in Southwest Philadelphia’s Eastwick neighborhood. The flooding is a continual point of contention between Eastwick residents and the city, but Graham, who has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years, said help may finally be on the way. The Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition (EFNC), of which Graham is education chair, along with the Philadelphia Water Department, Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) and the Environmental Protection Agency have come together to initiate a flood relief project for the neighborhood. The current idea circulating is a levee that would be built to control flooding along Cobbs Creek. Like her neighbors, Graham knows a solution must be found. One bad storm could spell disaster.
Eastwick residents experience two kinds of flooding: localized flooding often associated with stormwater management issues and flooding from Cobbs Creek, which frequently overflows its banks, especially during high intensity rainstorms. The flooding is also caused by upstream development that has taken place over time, and by tidal surges that back up into the stream system. The impact of the creek’s flooding is primarily felt by what are known as the planet streets: Saturn Place, Venus Place, Mercury Place and Mars Place.
But the construction of the levee is a long way off, and some residents like Brice Baker, who lives on Mars Place just yards from the creek, are unsure that it will actually be built.
“I don’t think they’re going to build a levee,” Baker said while trudging through greenery leading up to the creek. “The biggest reason: how much a levee is going to cost.” He acknowledged a well-built levee would provide some relief given the creek’s bank is only around five feet, “but I just don’t think anybody’s going to put up that money to do it.”
Residents’ reluctance to trust the city and various agencies is understandable. Eastwick was the largest urban renewal project in the country, but the redevelopment resulted in the displacement of residents, many of them African Americans. Its residents have experienced health issues, which they attribute to living next to two landfills, though the EPA and other agencies have denied those claims. Then there are the ongoing issues with the developer Korman Residential. Those issues came to a head last year when Korman sought to build a large apartment complex on land where it possessed development rights.
Earlier this month the EFNC and other parties put in place the preliminary stages of the flood relief project. The first step is a pre-feasibility study conducted by the Water Department and the ACOE that focuses on data collection. According to Water Department spokeswoman Joanne Dahme, the study will evaluate existing environmental, hydrologic, hydraulic and geotechnical conditions for the land adjacent to the Clearview landfill superfund site, which is in close proximity to Cobbs Creek.
“That will take us to the next step when evaluating the options for the flood control project,” Dahme said.
The concern is that antiquated data will be used in the development of a long-term solution. “They have to use the absolute most recent data that they can; there’s some major concerns about that,” Graham said. “Because I know that in the past five years I’ve seen flooding on my property that I never saw before.” Though she acknowledged, “It’s a marathon not a sprint. It’s going to take some time.”
What’s long overdue in Eastwick is a comprehensive solution.
“This was always a floodplain years ago. So how did the city turn around and give Korman permission to build in a floodplain and then they sold the homes to us and then all of a sudden now we’re starting to experience it?” Baker said. “In other words the same places that our houses are right now used to flood years ago.”
Mayor Nutter called for a comprehensive solution in Eastwick right before Hurricane Sandy. Though most residents felt at that point that it was too late, and that the neighborhood dodged a bullet as the storm didn’t hit the area as hard as originally predicted. Baker said since the storm the mayor has not reached out to the community to follow-up on the comprehensive solution.
To get past the feelings of disillusionment, Graham said, community education is needed. The EFNC is looking into a community benefits agreement, “to make sure the community has a voice in future development whether that be the airport expansion, Korman development, how Pepper [Middle School] is used.” Within the next couple of months the EFNC plans to hold a community gathering to bring together the Water Department and some of the other agencies to address the community at large.
“At that point we’ll let the community know what are options are,” Graham said. “Had it not been for the EFNC we would probably see development already taking place South of 86th Street,” Graham said. “We would not have had all this work being done by the Water Department and we wouldn’t be talking about a levee going up.”
Testimony from the Oct 9, 2012 hearing of the City of Philadelphia Committee on Transportation and Public Utilities examining the flooding issues in Eastwick: