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FEMA removes 550 Lackawanna homes from flood zone map

The release this week of revised flood-plain maps from FEMA spells good news for 550 homeowners in Lackawanna who have been forced for decades to pay for costly flood insurance.

Their houses have been removed from the flood plain, an official from the Federal Emergency Management Agency said.

Not all homeowners received good news. Ten properties on or near Sharon Drive were added to the Lackawanna flood plain.

"The remap significantly reduces the flood plain in Lackawanna," said Andrew Martin, risk analysis branch chief for FEMA Region 2. "The topography we used for the update was more precise than we used in the past."

Residents who live in the flood plain near Smokes Creek grew impatient with the federal government over repeated remapping delays.

"It's about time," said Norbert "Red" Brown, who purchased his home on Cleveland Avenue in 1963. "Why didn't they take them all off? If they're going to flood, they're all going to flood."

Since Brown paid off his home equity loan and has clear title to the property he no longer was required to purchase flood insurance. But his daughter, who lives across the street on Cleveland, pays $2,000 a year for flood insurance.

Lackawanna residents aren't the only homeowners being affected by changes in flood zone maps. Half of New York State is being remapped from the Lake Ontario shoreline to the Finger Lake region and including Washington and Saratoga counties, said Martin.

Updated remaps for the Lake Erie shoreline will be available in 2018, said Martin.

"It's an ongoing project in Erie and Niagara counties," said Martin. "Lackawanna was on a fast track based on information provided by the Army Corps of Engineers and the state (DEC).

A total of 586 structures in Lackawanna were removed from the flood plain. That leaves approximately 700 properties remaining on the flood plain, Martin said.

In addition to the 550 residences, 28 commercial properties and eight industrial properties were removed, Martin said.

Nine of the 10 properties added to the flood plain were located on Sharon Drive east of South Park Avenue, Martin said. Eight were residential, one was commercial and the other industrial.

"Lackawanna is a relatively flat area, so a 1-foot elevation change can make a big difference in the number of structures added or removed from the flood plain," Martin said.

State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy and other officials who have been fighting for a remap of Lackawanna's flood plain expressed relief.

"We have been trying for years to remove folks from the flood plain," said Kennedy. "Unfortunately over the years it's been a double taxation on the hard-working people living near Smokes Creek."

The two branches of Smokes Creek rise on the north slope of the Alleghany Plateau and nearly parallel each other as they flow in a northwesterly direction to their junction in Lackawanna and then to Lake Erie.

Martin traced the problem in Lackawanna to 1980, when FEMA first mapped the city's flood plain.

"The Army Corps of Engineers widened the (Smokes Creek) channel in the '60s, but by the '80s silt had started to refill the channel," Martin said. "The dimensions had changed because it had not been dredged.

"By 1991, the Army Corps did another study because, again, there was no dredging. By 2002, the entire First Ward was in the flood plain because of lack of maintenance," Martin said.

The creek, contaminated from decades of steel-making around it, was dredged in 2008 by Tecumseh Redevelopment, owners of the former Bethlehem Steel property. In 2015 it was dredged by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The project removed approximately 37,000 cubic yards of sediment along with undesirable vegetation, said DEC spokeswoman Megan Gollwitzer.

Homeowners added to the flood plain, as well as those who were not removed, have 90 days to appeal FEMA'S changes to the flood zone map.

"For the homes still in the flood plain, the flood risk has gone down and many people may be eligible for reduced flood insurance premiums," Martin said. "I encourage homeowners who remain on the flood plain to get certificates of elevation to present to their floor insurance agent."

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