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Tyrone Boro Emergency Management Coordinator J.R. Watson discusses flood control as part of county’s mitigation plan

At the end of September, Tyrone Borough was approved by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for state and federal disaster assistance for five years through the Blair County Hazard Mitigation Plan.
The county’s plan was a joint effort from local municipalities to establish a plan to mitigate disasters before they happen. Its approval qualifies the borough and county for state and federal monies to take preventative action should funding become available.
Tyrone Borough Emergency Management Coordinator (EMC) J.R. Watson, who also serves the borough as fire marshal, said that the approval didn’t guarantee funds, but it puts the borough on the list for potential assistance.
Watson wasn’t involved in the early stages of the borough’s disaster scenario evaluation, which was a requirement for the borough to be a part of the plan. Jim Beckwith, who was the borough’s EMC before he passed away, went to several meetings at the county level with a consulting firm out of Pittsburgh, URS Corporation, that was hired with grant funding to develop the county’s mitigation plan.
When the plan was out for final review, Watson then became involved with the project. He and Tyrone Borough Manager Sharon Dannaway, read over the plan, talked about several recommendations, and submitted those suggestions to Blair County Emergency Management Agency Director Gary Dennis.
Flooding in Tyrone Borough was undoubtedly the most addressed topic while borough officials drew up a final plan to submit to Blair County. A 30-year flood control project in Tyrone was half-completed in the mid 1970s, but the last stages of the project was voted down through a referendum by borough residents who didn’t want to see their taxes increased to finish an increasingly expensive U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project.
Today, it would cost an estimated $107 million, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), to complete Tyrone’s flood control project. The lofty price tag would be difficult for borough taxpayers to fund, even with state and federal assistance.
Watson explained that Tyrone’s last severe flood in 2004 was considered having the second highest flood level according to river gauges, and the total amount of damages claimed from it was less than $5 million. He says it would be hard to justify spending $107 million on a project to protect a flood zone that suffered considerably less in damage.
The problem Watson and other borough officials faced while putting together a plan to fend off rivers and streams, was what could they do to help protect flood prone residents and businesses. He said that the Tyrone community can only take actions to reduce the impacts of flooding, since part of the community was built in a flood zone.
“The only way that this issue will be resolved would be to take the actions that other communities have been taking,” stated Watson. “To allow no further construction in a flood plane, and to acquire and demolish the structures in the flood plane.”
Although Watson said that may seem to be an extreme and controversial method, he noted that it may also be “the most cost-effective method in reducing damages during a flooding event.”
If the borough acquired 200 structures at fair market value that exist in the flood zone, then razing them, that would be considerably cheaper than the costs of installing a levee or flood wall system. But, Watson said that Tyrone couldn’t afford to take the loss on its tax base with the elimination of 200 structures in the flood zone.
“I would prefer to see a more concerted effort to provide funding that would allow modifications to be made to the structures in the flood zone,” stated Watson.
Examples of modifications Watson suggested in the plan included moving expensive equipment such as furnaces, water heaters, electric panels, and washers and dryers out of the basements of the flood prone structures to a level in each structure that is above the typical flood level.
“This would relieve the majority of the high price insurance claims during flood events,” noted Watson. “During most floods in Tyrone, the basements of most structures were the only areas damaged.”
Another suggestion Watson relayed to borough officials was the installation of flood check valves on all of the discharges in the flood prone areas. He said that would reduce flooding during events that are less than a 30-year flood event.
“During most flooding events where the flood waters do not crest the wall along Berlin Avenue and South Logan Avenue, the majority of the flood waters result in water backing up through the storm water system,” said Watson.
He continued, “I have been involved in four major flood events in the borough, and flooding in three of those events could have been reduced if the borough had check valves in operation. Those valves were closed at the point when the river’s level reached the same level as the storm sewer’s discharge pipe.”
Watson noted that another way to help control flooding would be to plan and fund a yearly stream bank and channel maintenance program for the Little Juniata River and Bald Eagle Creek that flow through the borough. He said that stream banks and portions of the stream channels can become quickly overgrown and choked with brush and invasive species, such as the “Tree from Heaven.”
“If these types of situations are allowed to build over a number of years, the consequences could intensify the flooding due to stream flow and channel reductions in high water events,” explained Watson.
This method was also placed in the mitigation plan. He said that if a well-planned and ecologically friendly stream bank and channel maintenance program that has yearly goals and appropriate funding was established, that could lessen the flood risk and provide a healthier river ecosystem.
“All of these recommendations will still run in the millions of dollars, but they qualify the county and borough to be able to access the monies if they become available,” stated Watson. “The levee system as proposed in the seventies is still on the table, but now so are these other projects.”
He continued, “By adding these smaller projects, we can reinforce Tyrone’s commitment to reducing flood damage.”
Watson explained that it will be a hard and uphill battle to find the funding for any of the projects the borough suggested in the county’s mitigation plan. He said that it will take a very strong driving force from the residents and elected officials to bring any of the projects to fruition, when there are thousands of communities in the country trying to secure funding for similar projects.
“There’s a pot of money that has been squeezed to a point of being emptied and the recent economic issues will make securing funding even more difficult,” said Watson. “As the borough’s Emergency Management Coordinator, I will carry out the directives of the elected officials with the resources that they can provide.”