Dallas Township residents Alan and Brenda Pugh bought a smaller home in West Pittston in August 2011 to downsize and be closer to Alan’s aging father and the scenic Susquehanna River.
They remodeled and were moving in when the record Susquehanna River flood of September 2011 squelched their life change plans. The flood brought water up to the ceiling, blew out much of the foundation and forced the front sidewalk and steps into the basement.
The Pughs are among 150 or so Luzerne County property owners awaiting buyouts from 2011 flooding damage. To qualify, properties must fall in high-risk flood zones on federal flood insurance maps.
Buyout purchase offers have been issued to roughly 30 percent of these property owners to date, said former county flood authority director Jim Brozena, who is overseeing buyout requests for eight municipalities as a private consultant.
Brozena had hoped to have all buyout offers in the hands of eligible owners by now, but said state and federal requirements on mineral rights and historic clearances have slowed the process. The government wants coal company releases on old mineral rights attached to many of the properties and verification there’s no historic value to older structures, Brozena said.
“Any property over 50 years old has to be cleared to make sure there are no issues with historical preservation,” Brozena said. “We’re moving as quickly as we can.”
Alan Pugh is eager to unload his Race Street property and plans to stay on higher ground in the Back Mountain.
“I personally would not want to go through that unfortunate experience again of seeing such destruction,” he said.
Property at risk
Pugh stabilized the property with temporary support beams and boarded it up but still worries. Thieves ripped out copper wiring and stole the door.
He will be “lucky to break even” after the buyout but appreciates the opportunity to make a clean break, he said. Without the program, he would be compelled to demolish the structure and continue paying taxes on a 0.18-acre lot that can’t hold a structure, he said.
“I’m thrilled to have such a plan available,” Pugh said.
Roughly 10 percent of eligible property owners have declined to accept buyout offers to date, Brozena said.
Appraisals are based on pre-flood property values, and owners are free to accept or reject offers, officials said. The state and federal government will spend an estimated $14.36 million to buy and demolish properties.
Some program dropouts disagree with the offer, Brozena said.
“We also have property owners who decided the price was fair, but it won’t work because they’re upside-down on their mortgages,” he said.
Brozena is cautioning property owners who decline to participate that they will be forced to jack up their properties to meet federal requirements if they want to stay in them. Property owners can obtain $30,000 for elevation through flood insurance, which might not cover the full cost, he said. Climbing up stairs to reach the front door also might be unappealing, especially for the elderly, he said.
“The real goal here at the end of the day is to get people out of harm’s way,” Brozena said.
Jenkins Township resident Marion Cernera was a bundle of nerves when her River Road home was ripped apart from 9 feet of water on the first floor in 2011, but now she’s more relaxed in her remodeled structure as she awaits a buyout offer.
“Everything in our home is brand new now,” said Cernera. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. It depends on what they offer us.”
She’s torn between fear and nostalgia. The 2011 flood was more damaging than the prior record Susquehanna flood in 1972.
“It was never this bad, but I’m attached to this home because I’ve been living here more than 50 years,” said Cernera, who is married to Joe.
Jenkins Township has the most pending buyouts from 2011 flooding — 65.
Township Supervisor Stan Rovinski estimates 60 to 70 percent of the buyout-eligible properties were never reoccupied after the flood. The deserted structures include several off their foundations in the bowl-shaped “patch section” off River Road near the Eighth Street Bridge.
“It’s like Death Valley down there. It’s like Iraq,” Rovinski said of the patch.
He won’t be surprised if a few people back out of leaving but expects most will accept the offers. “Most of the property owners I’ve talked to can’t wait to get out of there,” Rovinski said.
Brozena is handling buyouts in Shickshinny, West Pittston and six townships — Exeter, Jenkins, Conyngham, Plains, Nescopeck and Hunlock. Officials in Plymouth Township, Nescopeck borough and Nanticoke are coordinating their own buyout requests.
Officials have notified all property owners who applied for buyouts but are not eligible so they weren’t left hanging, Brozena said.
About 30 West Pittston property owners requested buyouts, but the eligible list was whittled down to 10 because the others weren’t in the high-risk flood zone on federal maps, said borough Manager Savino Bonita.
More than half of the 26 pending buyout properties in Conyngham Township’s Mocanaqua section remain empty, said township Supervisor Ed Whitebread. Most of these properties were part of an old coal mining community, and Whitebread said the historical clearance caused processing delays.
“Now we’re getting into the warm weather again, and many of these properties are dilapidated. We’ll probably have problems with high grass,” Whitebread said.
Real estate opportunities
Plains Township Emergency Management Coordinator Charles Krommes said the owners of two flood-damaged properties that fell outside the high-risk map zone recently sold their properties after learning they weren’t eligible for buyouts.
About 27 township properties are in the pending buyout.
Buyers can snatch up flooded properties that missed the buyout at a discounted price, but they must weigh the pros and cons, Krommes said.
“It’s a nice quiet area, but there’s that flooding risk,” Krommes said.