Bass to flood-zone residents: Money for infrastructure overhaul ‘is not there’

Last weekend’s impending rain storms weighed heavily on the minds of the East Germantown residents who sat down with Eighth District City Councilwoman Cindy Bass on Saturday for a spirited discussion about routine flooding in the neighborhood that has, at times, sent cars floating down the street and, last summer, claimed the life of a young woman.

The Philadelphia Water Department, in conjunction with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is in the midst of drawing up a digital model of the area’s antiquated sewer system, targeted as the primary culprit.

The 12-mile study is scheduled to be completed shortly, but PWD officials have said that any underground renovations wouldn’t start for at least another five years. Construction could last for another five beyond that.

Short-term solution sought

Many of the more than 40 residents who gathered for the hour-long meeting inside the Belfield Recreation Center found that timeline troubling. They urged Bass to help them find a shorter-term solution.

“A lot of us are actually nervous on Belfield [Avenue], and I’m pretty sure on the other areas, about the rain that we’re going to get this evening and all day tomorrow,” said Kim Crawford-Collins, who has lived on the 5300 block of Belfield for 45 years.

Some residents have shown interest in a city-led property buyout. Serious discussions around that option, though, have not happened to date.

Logan-like buyout unlikely

Referencing the sinking houses of Logan, Bass told residents a buyout wouldn’t likely be a quick option.

In 2006, after a nearly 20-year effort, the city stepped in and used millions in federal funds to help relocate residents from a 17-block area who lived in houses built atop an unstable mix of ash and cinder. They also paid to demolish the homes, more than 900 in all.

Speaking more generally about the area’s severe flooding, Bass said, “the reality of getting this problem fixed tomorrow, next week, next year, in my opinion, is unlikely. I’m just going to be honest and keep it real.”

A sympathetic Bass also told residents that if funding was available for an infrastructure overhaul, the work would be done.

“We probably wouldn’t even be having this conversation,” she said. “But the fact of the matter is the money is not there, it’s not going to be here for a minute, it’s going to take a while for us to pull this together.”

Bass nonetheless vowed to fight for whatever solution residents wanted her to fight for, saying that fixing the problem is something that “has to be done.”

Not good enough

Bass’ candor didn’t seem to sit well with residents.

Matthew Santillo, who lives on the 5300 block of Belfield Ave., told Bass that it’s City Council’s job to find money to fix this kind of problem.

“If someone gets sick, if another person dies, if someone needs an ambulance and the street’s flooded and the ambulance can’t get through, if something like that happens, I think it’s going to cost the city a lot more in the long run,” said Santillo, who suggested that the city establish a relief fund.

Citing the cash-strapped city’s struggle to cover its own operating budget, Bass said setting aside funds for a relief program is not likely right now.

“I do think that’s a good idea. I do think that that’s something that we can advocate and ask for and move forward with,” she said.

Bass did say it would be possible to create a contingency plan with the city’s Office of Emergency Management as a longer-term solution gets underway.

Bass said she could report back to residents about setting up a contingency plan in the next two weeks. Another meeting with Bass has not yet been scheduled.

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