HARMONY — Cathy Rape dropped two letters in the mail on the morning of May 28.
The letters were bound for federal and state emergency management offices.
In them, the longtime Harmony mayor was quick to point out that she didn't mean to come across as negative. However, Rape wrote that in the 15 years since Hurricane Ivan decimated the area, she has seen flooding get worse.
She explained her reasoning and asked the entities to take action to soften the impact of heavy rains and inevitable flooding.
“We can't control the amount of flow of water that Pennsylvania has; it is a blessing,” she wrote. “You CAN CONTROL how much 'fill' gets in its way. Please help by maintaining the amount of property (floodplains) used as relief areas. Homes and business depend on it!”
Less than 12 hours after she dropped the letters into a mailbox, Harmony and surrounding communities again were struck by heavy flooding, with several feet of water filling the streets. Businesses were left to take stock of the damage yet again, and residents took to the familiar task of pumping water from their homes.
The irony wasn't lost on Rape. The impact of the flooding was something she did not expect to see, particularly after flooding caused by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. The deluge was supposed to be the 100-year flood, she wrote in the letters to FEMA and PEMA.
“Flood plain property USED to border the creek for miles. Not the case anymore,” she wrote.
The problem, she assessed, is development in surrounding areas, which is filling in the former floodplain. With nowhere else to go, the borough is being inundated with water at an uncontrollable pace.
“I'm not opposed to development, but if anyone wants to build in (floodplain areas), have them pay insurance premiums and raise the buildings up,” she wrote.
Rape said her letters were passed on to other parties. She hopefully anticipates a return call from the lieutenant governor's office. If and when she hears from someone at the state level, her request will be simple: a moratorium on new construction in floodplain areas until a solution can be found.
Rape understands Harmony's location generally makes it susceptible to flooding and acknowledges there is no way to control it. But complicating matters is the winding Connoquenessing Creek, with its numerous horseshoe bends that inherently trap debris and downed trees.
“We're in a precarious part of the area in the creek,” she said.
However, she stresses how over the past 15 years the watershed and floodplains have changed drastically, and the burden for increased flooding should not fall on homeowners. Instead, she argues, developers should show due diligence to ensure they are not creating more problems.
“It's not fair, and I know life is not fair,” she said of the frequency of flooding to residents' homes. “But when you know you're hurting another person, it's not right.”
Development approval and the guidelines that must be followed are typically set at the municipal level, according to Mark Gordon, chief of economic development and planning for Butler County. Part of those guidelines includes adherence to the municipalities' stormwater management plans, which serve to counteract the impact development has on an area.
“Any time you're taking away the earthen material ... it allows waters to dissipate and absorb into the ground,” he said.
Plants, grass and other vegetation are then replaced by impervious material, such as roofs, concrete for driveways and asphalt, resulting in a change to the way water flows on a given plot of land.
Stormwater management plans were recently updated by all county municipalities, but Gordon said they focus on specific townships and boroughs and do not investigate the overall impact to the entire watershed. He hopes to see such plans created and approved in a “collaborative spirit” moving forward, with consideration given for how changing plans can affect a municipality's neighbors.