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Brenda Whitfield’s home in Saturn Place seemed like the perfect place to raise a family when she moved to the street that borders a low-lying field in the Eastwick neighborhood of southwest Philadelphia over 40 years.
Two decades later, in 1999, the local college her children attended suffered 9-foot flooding, resulting in more than $ 1 million in damage. “People often ask why you are moving to a flood zone,” Whitfield said, “but you are moving because realtors don’t mention it.”
Eastwick, a predominantly black neighborhood with an average annual income of $ 40,000, is one of many communities of color nationwide disproportionately affected by urban flooding. It sits at the lowest point in town and is surrounded by water – Darby and Cobbs creeks to the west and the Schuylkill River to the east.
As storms intensified amid climate change, the region was hit again and again. President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, enacted in mid-November, pledges billions of dollars in funding to FEMA to help communities prepare for climate disasters. While there is movement to make Eastwick one of the locations aided as part of the plan, it’s still unclear if that will happen.
In the United States, people of color are overrepresented in “hot spots” of flood exposure, according to a study published in Natural Hazards this year. The owners of Eastwick have noticed.
Léo Brundage, retired ironworker and longtime resident, believes his neighborhood has not been prioritized. “I wonder: is it because of the demographics of the community? “
Whitfield, now a grandmother, echoed Brundage’s concern. There have always been “small floods,” she said, but “no one wanted to listen to a middle-class neighborhood where blacks were settling.”
It wasn’t until the 4-foot flood waters caused by Hurricane Floyd in 1999 that the city started to pay attention, she said. Since Floyd, the Army Corps of Engineers has conducted flood mitigation studies, but residents are frustrated with the lack of real results.
Last October, the body presented its study to the Eastwick Community Advisory Group.
Brundage, who heads an advisory group, said he was sick of hearing about new studies. Another meeting is scheduled, and he hopes officials will say something concrete about “whether they want to help us or not.”
When Hurricane Isaias struck in 2020, Brundage said he suffered more than $ 60,000 in damage.
“I’m 77 years old so I try to live the best bit of life I have left,” he said. “Not having this post-traumatic stress disorder because every time it rains we get inundated.”
The home of 72-year-old Phyllis Glenn is on the same street as the one Whitfield bought 40 years ago: Saturn Place. It runs along the edge of a field bordering Cobbs Creek, which regularly emerges during storms.
The situation makes the nighttime rain “really scary,” Glenn said, because you can’t watch the rising waters. Standing on her porch and caring for her young grandson, she called the continued flooding “absolutely devastating.”
She inherited her home from her father, whom she witnessed in the face of Hurricane Floyd. When Hurricane Ida struck this year, Glenn said water had crept halfway up the field.
Many neighbors spend time looking out the back window when it rains. “You develop PTSD,” said Sharon Truxon, a 55-year-old educator. “We have to keep rebuilding,” she added, “and at some point you don’t have the resources.”
The basketball courts behind Saturn Place remain eroded by water damage a year after Isaias, leaving children unable to shoot with a hoop.
Whitfield said the adjacent recreation center was also flooded – a space that once served as a vibrant home for community activities. Whitfield fondly remembered meeting there for crochet lessons, while others played tip games.
The community received a grant to restore the center, neighbors said, but until recently work was delayed.
After Hurricane Isaias, the Philadelphia Emergency Management Office conducted a damage assessment in Eastwick and neighboring counties through an online survey, canvassing and contacts with political and community leaders .
Using this information, Governor Tom Wolf requested a declaration of major disaster and the corresponding public assistance for counties, including Philadelphia. Administration spokeswoman Elizabeth Rementer said their request was denied.
However, Rementer said federal assistance was provided in the form of low-interest loans through the US Small Business Administration.
It’s not the same as emergency aid, Whitfield pointed out. “We were told, ‘You can get a low interest loan,” she said. “Without the Red Cross, there would have been no help without us.
Josh Lippert, head of the City of Philadelphia floodplain, said the Infrastructure and Investment Act would invest a lot of money in FEMA programs to potentially help climate-vulnerable communities like Eastwick.
The city is submitting six projects for various FEMA assistance programs to the state’s emergency management office for review, according to a spokesperson for the Emergency Management Office.
Whether or not Eastwick gets help from these grants depends on both state and FEMA approval. Whitman hopes so. She also hopes the program to relocate residents out of the flood zone will progress, but she will be sad to leave.
“When we moved to this neighborhood,” said Whitfield, “it’s like any neighborhood – you want to leave a legacy for generations to come.”