Contrarian: Flood the Courts!

River towns should quit mopping and start suing

When April showers flooded out New Hope, Yardley and Trenton this spring, the scenes of ruined homes and shell-shocked victims were what you might only expect to see during hurricane season. A single line of thunderstorms was all it took to deal that portion of the Delaware its worst flooding in 50 years. Worse than Agnes in 1972. Worse than Floyd in 1999. Worse than Allison in 2001.

Federal flood disasters have been declared in the area three times within the past 10 months. New Hope has gotten two cold mud baths in that time. Cresheim Valley Road, a major artery in Chestnut Hill, washed out last August, and less than two months later, a woman drowned on Midvale Avenue while waiting for a bus.

What the hell is going on here? Water is indeed a potent force, and when the heavens open up, the typically fatalistic folks who live near rivers and streams are apt to feel they are at the mercy of the gods. But before we marvel at the cruel and breathtaking power of nature, let us ponder first the awe-inspiring chain of greed, stupidity and pig-headed parochialism that is suburban development.

As the suburbs have sprawled out over the past 20 or 30 years, developers and township officials have cultivated an oblivious What, Me Worry? attitude toward the flood damage they cause in communities miles downstream. It is sprawl — swapping pastures and woodlands for parking lots and buildings — that lets a quick spring cloudburst release so much water downstream so fast that the effect, however brief, is record-high flood levels. Sprawl puts the flash in flash flooding.

If I stuck a garden hose in your basement window and opened up the spigot, I’m pretty sure you’d sic the cops on me — if you didn’t make me wear that garden hose as a necktie first. But when upstream towns invite developers to turn cornfields and woods into blacktopped storm gutters, the people drowning downstream normally suffer in silence. More often than not, those poor soggy schmucks bailing out their basements will blame that bitch Mother Nature.
Many say there’s little to be done. Storm-water patterns are now permanently changed, and there’s no point in crying over spilled mud. Some blame the victims. They say houses on floodplains should be bought up and demolished. This may be true for a bungalow here and there, but who’s for picking up and moving New Hope? Bucks County’s commissioners say they want to revitalize the county’s waterfront communities, even as they let newer, prosperous townships help wash these historic towns into the Delaware.