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FEMA remap may relieve flood insurance burden for Lackawanna property owners

Lackawanna residents forced for decades to pay exorbitant insurance rates for flood protection may get some good news after a remapping report expected next month from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The bad news is that the remapping may add some new parcels to the Smokes Creek flood plain, according to an email from a FEMA official to Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns.

"It is expected that a significant number of structures (homes, industrial and businesses) will be removed from the Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA) and it is possible that a small number of structures will be newly mapped into it," stated Jose J. Davila, intergovernmental affairs specialist for FEMA.

"Erie County as a whole is currently going through the remapping process," Davila noted. While the county process has experienced delays, FEMA decided to move forward with Lackawanna, Davila said in the email. "Last fall, we received necessary technical data from the Army Corps of Engineers that allowed us to proceed ..."

After the report is released, a 90-day appeal period will begin with the new maps going into effect six months after the release date, Davila said.

Kearns on Monday is scheduled to update Lackawanna officials on the upcoming report during the City Council meeting.

There are more than 380 federally mandated flood insurance policies in effect in Lackawanna, Kearns said. The average annual premium runs $911. The median income in Lackawanna is $36,000. "This is nothing more than a thinly veiled regressive tax that greatly impacts elderly and disabled residents who are living on fixed incomes," said Kearns.

Retired steelworker George Weil is 75 and lives on Willow Street in the Second Ward. His flood insurance premium is $600. After paying a mortgage and utility bills, Weil said he is left with $80 for gasoline and food.

"I keep on getting promise after promise that the rates would go down," Weil said. "I can't afford it."

Federally regulated lenders require flood insurance in the amount of the mortgage or loan if it is determined that the property is on a flood plain. A team of officials including Mayor Geoffrey Szymanski and Second Ward Councilwoman Annette Iafallo has met with residents over the years to remedy the situation.

The two branches of Smokes Creek rise on the north slope of the Alleghany Plateau, nearly paralleling each other in a northwesterly flow to meet in Lackawanna before emptying into Lake Erie.

In the 1960s, the Army Corps of Engineers widened the creek banks and deepened its beds, said Szymanski. "It was built wider, longer and deeper than perhaps it needed to be but it worked to stop the flooding," Szymanski said. "It hasn't flooded for decades."

Tainted after years of steel-making nearby, Smokes Creek was dredged for toxic cleanup as well as for flood prevention. In 2015, the creek was dredged from its mouth to the train lines near the city's Second Ward, Szymanski said.

Jean Stevens, 84, lives on Elkhart Street off of South Park Avenue. Her flood insurance was $500 when she and her husband moved into the modest home 15 years ago. Today the widow's payment is $900, causing Stevens to go without some medication.

"When I bought the house I didn’t know I needed flood insurance," Stevens said. "I've never been flooded -- not even a wet basement. Now I can't afford a lawyer. Every year it goes up."


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