NIMBY decision comes back to haunt a flooded town

On a flood-ravaged street on the west bank of the Susquehanna River, a pointed question is literally writ large now in white spray paint on the side of a building: “Levee or view?”

The question, posed by an anonymous provocateur, strikes at the heart of a sore subject in this once idyllic hamlet of about 5,000 residents, as it slushes through the mud and assesses the damage caused by record-breaking flooding over the past several days.

The Susquehanna, swollen by the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee, inundated West Pittston, swallowing some houses almost to their second floors, and giving parts of the town the appearance of a muck-coated moonscape. For many here, what is left of their former lives is debris piled high on the curb.

This is not the first time this town has faced the issue. Almost 40 years ago, in the aftermath of another catastrophic flood, the same question was posed. But wary of the price of construction and protective of its picturesque vistas, West Pittston decided to go with the view. Meanwhile, most other cities along the Susquehanna built stronger, higher levees.

So when the Susquehanna rose to catastrophic flood levels again on Friday morning, West Pittston had no protection at all. And it is likely that this time the town faced even higher water traveling at greater speed precisely because of its neighbors’ enhanced levee systems, which forced the water into a narrower, more elevated channel.

…And a new generation of homeowners is left to come to terms with the result of a decision made before some of them were even born…

The toll the Susquehanna took when it roared through West Pittston began to draw gawkers over the weekend. One man stood on the river bank and said: “I don’t feel sorry for them at all. They made their choice.”

The sort of question I ask every time I encounter the new NIMBYs who have joined environmental actions to defeat alternative energy schemes – whether they be onshore or offshore wind farms, wave generated electricity, solar farms in western deserts – because it might spoil the views that prompted their purchase of a vacation cottage.

Questions of conservation, healthful air and economies, a better future for folks who work for a living – requires a core motivation with more depth than being able to look at the landscape while having an after-dinner beer on the front porch. Ain’t nothing wrong with walking to the top of a levee for a view. I did it all the time when I lived on Magazine Street in NOLa.

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