As Waters Rise, a Community Must Decide: Do We Stay or Go?
Brenda Whitfield recalled the first major flood at her home in the Eastwick section of Southwest Philadelphia, when Hurricane Floyd filled her ground floor with five feet of water. “I was scared half to death,” she said of the 1999 storm. “The water was coming, and the next thing I knew my husband was like, ‘Brenda, you got to leave.’” She rushed with her children to a relative’s house in a higher section of Eastwick while her husband stayed home. “We saw canoes coming to get pets and seniors here,” she said.
Since Floyd, there have been Tropical Storms Ivan and Charlie in 2004; Hurricanes Irene and Sandy in 2011 and 2012, respectively; Tropical Storm Isaias in 2020; and Hurricane Ida in 2021, each of which flooded parts of Eastwick with up to five and a half feet of muddy water. And then there were the smaller storms that left Whitfield and her neighbors with water in their basements and lingering questions about whether the community will remain habitable as climate change brings ever more flooding.
Whitfield, 75, has lived in her three-story townhouse on Saturn Place, in the “Planet Streets” section of Eastwick, for 43 years. Located about a quarter-mile from the confluence of Cobbs and Darby Creeks, the neighborhood has experienced 20 floods during those years.
Adaptation to climate change is especially difficult for Eastwick, which has a history of pollution and long-standing socioeconomic challenges.
Now, she and her neighbors are contemplating predictions that flooding will worsen as sea-level rise from the nearby Delaware River, and a tidal section of the adjacent Schuylkill River, produce higher storm surges. Most of the neighborhood lies 11 feet below the level of the Delaware River.
Meanwhile, bigger and more frequent storms linked with a warming climate are swelling the volume of the creeks that bear down on the majority-Black community from points higher in their watersheds.
“Every time it rains, and every time they say it’s severe weather, we get anxiety, we can’t sleep,” said Whitfield, who is captain of her block and the secretary of Eastwick United, a community group dedicated to finding ways to make Eastwick resilient to flooding.
Across the United States, low-lying communities face similar hydrological challenges: how to protect people and property from rising seas and increased inland flooding. Many of these places are low-income communities of color. But low-lying Eastwick, with a majority Black population and a history of pollution, has long-standing socioeconomic challenges that make adaptation especially urgent and difficult.
Based on the neighborhood’s chronic flooding and the expectation of worse to come, the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2022 revised Eastwick’s flood map, enlarging the area that is expected to see flooding in big storms. According to Risk Factor, a tool created by the climate-information nonprofit First Street Foundation, 89 percent of Eastwick properties face a “severe” risk of flooding in the next 30 years.
Last year, NOAA predicted that sea level rise will cause the Delaware River at Philadelphia to rise 1.34 feet by 2050 from its 2000 level, and it will rise by almost four feet by the end of the century. Rising seas may also lead to high-tide flooding in Eastwick – unrelated to any storms — as soon as the 2060s, according to a new study by a team led by Drexel University. By the 2080s, the study said, the neighborhood could experience high-tide flooding that is similar in extent to today’s rain-related flooding.
Eastwick’s geographic vulnerability and its status as an EJ community led NOAA to select the community as one of a number of national test cases for finding equitable, community-driven ways to protect low-lying communities from intensifying climate threats. In fiscal 2021, the agency’s Climate Program provided Eastwick with almost $300,000 for research, led by the Drexel team, into possible solutions to flooding.
An urban renewal project failed to meet its goals in part because white flight from the city reduced home demand in the neighborhood.
The three major solutions under consideration by the city and researchers from three universities are: better control of stormwater upstream in the watersheds of the two creeks that historically flood Eastwick; an earthen levee that would protect the neighborhood’s most vulnerable areas; and a “land swap” in which residents from 265 homes would be moved to higher ground, a process also known as “managed retreat.”
In the early 20th century, Eastwick was known as the Meadows or Clearview, a semi-rural marshland whose open spaces attracted weekend visitors from central Philadelphia. Businesses and families — whites and people of color — began moving in, and by mid-century the neighborhood was home to some 19,000 people living without sanitary sewer systems or sidewalks.
Starting in 1950, the city launched an urban renewal program for the neighborhood that aimed to re-create a racially integrated community with improved infrastructure, jobs, and recreational facilities. Through its primary appointed developer, the Korman Company, the project demolished 4,000 homes and relocated more than 8,000 people before stalling out — with just 500 new homes built — in the 1980s. According to Michael Nairn, a professor of urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Korman had failed to meet its building goals in part because white flight from the city to the suburbs reduced demand for homes in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, two landfills, one of which overlooks residential areas on the west side of Eastwick, were leaking chemicals, including trichloroethane and PCBs, into soil and groundwater.
In 2001, both landfills were added to the federal Superfund list for cleanup: Contaminated soil was removed from the yards of nearby homes, and remediators began to cap the dumps and plant them with thousands of trees. In 2015, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority took over the remaining undeveloped land — about 135 acres that sit above the marsh and may, if the community supports the plan, be used for the proposed “land swap.”
Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability, which is coordinating federal, state, and local work on the flooding issue, is looking closely at both the levee and the land swap proposals. Proposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a levee would be 15 feet high and run for 1,400 feet along the east bank of Cobbs Creek. Jay Smith, project manager for the Corps’ Eastwick study, told a virtual community meeting this month that modeling showed the levee met more of the Corps’ criteria than other possible measures — such as home elevation, home buyouts, or the building of concrete flood walls. He acknowledged the levee would lead to some “induced flooding” in nearby areas, but said the Corps would take additional measures to control stormwater in those communities.
Earl Wilson, a 41-year resident of Eastwick who is president of the Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition, another community group, worried that a levee might protect residents from a flood coming from one direction but not from others. “You can’t just pick up that levee and say, ‘We are going to switch it over here because we think the flood is coming in that direction,’” he said. “Who is to say that the flood is not going to come from the Schuylkill area or from the ocean?”
A land swap would move residents to higher ground within Eastwick but would uproot them from all that is familiar.
According to Franco Montalto, a Drexel professor of engineering who is leading the academic research on Eastwick flood protection, the levee might prevent flooding in the most vulnerable areas for a decade or two. But he said it is less likely to succeed as climate change accelerates.
Nor does Montalto favor upstream solutions. Reducing creek flow higher in the watershed, he said, would require 34 municipalities to do a much better job of containing stormwater that rushes off impermeable surfaces, like parking lots and buildings, and into creeks. Could or would those communities do that work? “The short answer is no,” Montalto said. “They would need to do a whole lot more, and it is not clear that is going to happen.”
Of all the options on the table, Montalto said, modeling shows the “land swap” would be the most cost effective and the most protective. It would move the most vulnerable people to another area in Eastwick, allowing them to keep their communities intact. Land that once housed people would revert to meadows and wetlands that would help absorb future downpours and storm surges.
A land swap would combine flood control with natural restoration in a community whose residents are disproportionately affected by environmental problems, Montalto said.
“In this case, you have really significant environmental justice questions, and really significant flood risk,” he said. “It’s the idea of trying to take an equitable approach to flood resilience, telling people of color who have been subjected to other types of environmental injustices [such as siting landfills within their communities] that there is a way that you could stay in your community, and in so doing restore green space.”
But many residents don’t see it that way. A land swap that would move them to higher ground, even if it’s still within Eastwick, is still a move from their block, their neighbors, and all that is familiar.
Whitfield, for one, said she has no plans to move to a new house on higher ground. Instead, she’s pinning her hopes on a levee. “Once you become a senior, it is very hard to uproot yourself and start over again,” she said.
“I’m not going to move to another potential flood-prone area,” says an Eastwick resident who is open to a land swap.
The relocation of whole communities, or sections of them, has been pursued throughout the U.S. since the 1980s. In New Jersey, for example, a state-run program called Blue Acres buys chronically flooded properties from willing sellers at market prices, then demolishes them and creates open space to absorb future floods. The program has bought about 1,000 such homes since its inception in the 1990s, mostly along the Atlantic Coast and Delaware Bay, and has helped displaced residents find new homes in safer areas. But critics say these efforts are dwarfed by the challenges of climate change, which is expected to raise the state’s sea level about two feet by 2050.
Nationally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency bought some 40,000 properties between 1989 and 2019 through its managed-retreat program, according to a paper by A.R. Siders, who researches climate-change adaptation at the University of Delaware.
Gordon Branham, 71, has lived less than a mile from Eastwick’s Planet Streets since 1982. A disabled Vietnam veteran who said his PTSD is worsened by the constant threat of flooding, Branham said he loves his neighborhood and is open to the proposed land swap. But he worries that the move wouldn’t be protective enough and is considering leaving Eastwick altogether. “I’m not going to move to another potential flood-prone area because we know the seas are going to continue to rise.”
Earl Wilson is also open to discussing the idea of a “land swap,” but like Whitfield he argued that it would need buy-in from all residents in the affected area. If some residents are unwilling to move, he said, they’ll remain vulnerable to flooding even if others agree to relocate.
“Some are open to the idea [of moving],” he said. “But a lot of people are set in their street and would only want to see the flood situation developed to the point where they could feel safe where they are. I want to make sure that these people are given their fair shake.”
The city has already received FEMA funding for flood mitigation in Eastwick through the Biden Administration’s requirement that 40 percent of federal infrastructure funding benefit underserved communities, and it expects to receive more funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and climate initiatives in the Inflation Reduction Act.
The city says the final decision on flood-control measures will prioritize what the community wants, but that agreement won’t be quick.
The Office of Sustainability stressed that the final decision on flood-control measures will prioritize what the community wants, but it predicted that agreement won’t be quick. “These conversations are very delicate and take time, especially because we are also working on building trust with residents that have gone through substantial harm,” the agency said.
In the meantime, the city and its federal partners are considering installing temporary “HESCO” flood barriers — wire baskets covered with synthetic textiles and filled with soil — to mitigate risk, and it is advising residents on how to flood-proof their homes.
Margaret Cobb, who has lived in Eastwick for 40 years, isn’t counting on flood-proofing. When a big storm is forecast, she backs her car from her garage, where it would be ruined, and drives to a nearby hotel. The 80-year-old returns when the water recedes and watches while the repairs to her home are completed.
But with the expectation of worse to come, Cobb said she’s now open to the idea of the proposed land swap, especially if it allowed her to stay in Eastwick.
“I would approve of that because it’s very stressful going through this every year,” she said. “Even the Hurricane Lee that’s passing, you wonder what direction it’s going to take,” she added, referring to the storm that was moving northward through the Atlantic in mid-September. “The older we get, the more stress it is for us seniors.”