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CAN CATASTROPHIC FLOODING OCCUR HERE?Zoners, engineers, architects use caution in high-risk areas

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FILE PHOTO/STEVE WILLIAMS, FLIGHT QUEST AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY
About half of Easton’s downtown is in a flood plain. Officials say it is unrealistic to ban development in such a big part of the city.
FILE PHOTO/STEVE WILLIAMS, FLIGHT QUEST AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY About half of Easton’s downtown is in a flood plain. Officials say it is unrealistic to ban development in such a big part of the city.

A harsh storm can occur anytime and anywhere, bringing severe flooding with it.

Even here.

However, officials say the Greater Lehigh Valley is fairly well-protected because of zoning laws and municipal and county planning. Furthermore, developments largely are built above the flood plain to protect the structures and the people inside.

When building a project in close proximity to a major source of water, developers say, teams of engineers put in a large amount of flood-prevention efforts.

But regardless of how much planning or regulation, the question arises – in the aftermath of the recent massive storms that belted the Southwest and Southeast – “Could it happen here?”

The answer is, of course. Just maybe not to the same extreme.

“It wouldn’t happen in the same way; they have a different form of flooding,” said Becky Bradley, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, in reference to the massive flooding that covered Houston and many parts of Texas as a result of Hurricane Harvey in August and September. “We are not even in the coastal zone, but it could get very bad.”

This was seen most clearly with Superstorm Sandy in 2012, which hit New Jersey and New York hard and was felt to a lesser extent in Pennsylvania.

“For a very long time, even prior to Sandy, the Lehigh Valley has had very significant utility capabilities that support that market,” Bradley said, referring to the tri-state area of New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. “We are actually considered one of the more climate-safe zones in the U.S., but that doesn’t mean we don’t have issues.

“We are sitting on this major aquifer and we have 16 watersheds, so we can have our own flooding issues, and we’ve seen that time and time again.”

These watersheds are areas of land that drain into a body of water, such as the Delaware and Lehigh rivers in Easton. When floods strike, they can hinder businesses and disrupt local events.

Major floods have hit Easton, putting businesses literally underwater, while significant flooding along the Monocacy Creek in Bethlehem heavily curbed Musikfest’s attendance and operations several years ago.

UPDATING HAZARD MITIGATION PLAN

The LVPC worked with Lehigh and Northampton counties on a hazard mitigation plan in 2007 and is updating it, said Geoff Reese, the commission’s director of environmental planning.

The plan takes a comprehensive look at hazards and how the organization can manage them. An updated plan deals with stormwater management across all 16 watersheds.

“That hazard mitigation plan includes all types of disasters,” Bradley said. “Without that hazard mitigation plan, you might not have the appropriate response.”

FEMA SUPPORT HINGES ON A PLAN

Having an updated hazard mitigation plan ultimately determines whether or not the Federal Emergency Management Agency will give money to a community after a disaster, she said.

“One of the things you don’t have in our region is a condition that has no zoning,” Bradley said. “I believe the disaster with Harvey is exaggerated because they don’t have proper planning. It can exaggerate the potential loss of life.”

Huge stretches of Bethlehem, Easton and Allentown are in flood plains, and these areas can be found all around the eastern seaboard, Bradley said.

ALONG THE WATERFRONT

Along the banks of the Lehigh River in Allentown, The Waterfront is shaping up to be one of the largest developments in recent memory. The project, by Dunn Twiggar Co., Michael Dunn Co. and Jaindl Enterprises, involves construction of several office buildings, plus space for residential units and retail tenants.

The $300 million project is expected to bring hundreds of people working and living at the development upon completion with immediate access and clear views to the river.

Naturally, flooding was a concern during planning.

“It requires an intense amount of attention to detail,” said Zachary Jaindl, chief operations officer for Jaindl Enterprises. “At the end of the day, we make sure our tenants are very confident in our site.”

ADDING HEIGHT

When developers bought The Waterfront site in 2012, they talked to the previous owner about flooding issues. Jaindl said they were told that even with the storms from Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, the water did not make it halfway up the banks.

“From the site infrastructure standpoint, we are going to be adding height where the buildings are going to be going up,” Jaindl said. “A small portion of our site was in the 100-year flood plain.”

Jaindl said developers had teams of engineers working to ensure residents and tenants would not have any flooding concerns. Anything developed at the Waterfront will be above the 500-year flood plain, he added.

“You just have to be very smart [about development],” Bradley said.

CROSS HAIRS OF MOTHER NATURE

In Easton, there are no flash flood conditions on the Delaware and Lehigh rivers, but Bushkill Creek, which also flows through the city, has those conditions.

Mayor Sal Panto said he has seen the Bushkill Creek rise about six or seven feet in as little as 25 minutes.

“The rivers are a problem, but not as much as Bushkill Creek,” Panto said.

The biggest flooding area in the city is along Lehigh Drive, where much of the Lehigh River wall has been destroyed by previous floods.

BUILD TO THE GUIDELINES

The last major flood to strike Easton was in 2006 when the Delaware and Lehigh flooded heavily.

While some people believe that no development should occur in a flood plain, about 50 percent of the downtown is in the plain, Panto said.

It wouldn’t be feasible to ban all development in these areas, he said.

“The concern is access, resiliency, how fast can the city recover? You have to build according to the guidelines,” Panto said.

DEPENDS ON THE USE

The Da Vinci Science Center is planning to build a large aquarium and science center at the site of the Days Inn in downtown Easton. It’s in a flood plain and very near the Delaware and Lehigh rivers.

Bradley said a hotel in the flood plain where people are sleeping is far more dangerous than a commercial facility where people will be awake and able to leave, should a flood occur.

There also are prohibitions on building such structures as hospitals and jails in flood plains where people would not be able to get out, she added.

WARY OF WATERSHED

Very intense rainfall can create flooding in places with no development, Reese added.

“You are going to be making different decisions based on how the watershed acts,” Bradley said.

That’s why the LVPC needs to update the stormwater mitigation plan and the hazard mitigation plan, both of which are supposed to be updated every five years, Reese said.

“This is nature, after all. Nature is going to do what it wants to do,” Reese said.

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