WEST PITTSTON, Pa. -- Shoveling river mud from what remains of his dry-cleaning business, Chris Economopolous had some choice words for opponents of an unsightly and ultimately never-built levee system along the Susquehanna River that might have saved his town from catastrophic flooding this month.
"What do they want to look at?" said Economopolous, who lost hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of equipment to the flood. "There's no view. This is one of the most polluted rivers in the country."
In West Pittston, population 4,868, residents blame the flood on wealthy riverfront citizens who two decades ago didn't want a dike spoiling their view of the Susquehanna. A piece of graffiti spray-painted on the exterior of a damaged building captures the sentiment of many flood victims: "Levee or view?"
The truth about West Pittston's failure to support a $25 million levee system a generation ago turns out to be a little more complicated. While many people in town did oppose a levee when it was discussed – among them occupants of the stately riverfront Victorians that line the borough's nicest street, Susquehanna Avenue – it was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that made the ultimate decision to leave the borough unprotected.
Corps spokesman Chris Augsburger said public opinion factored in the decision, noting most residents who attended a public meeting in 1990 registered their disapproval.
But the Corps also relied on its own analysis that showed that for every dollar spent on a levee system for West Pittston, only 30 cents of economic loss would be prevented. Federal rules require a minimum cost-benefit ratio of 1-to-1 for a project to win funding.
"It turned out to be a non-starter," Augsburger said Tuesday. The Corps will review the possibility of a levee for West Pittston if Congress directs it to do so – and provides the money for a study, he said.
Whatever happened decades ago, West Pittston has to live with the consequences.
Forty percent of its land was flooded last week when the Susquehanna left its banks and inundated hundreds of homes and businesses – even those well out of the flood zone. Statewide, extensive flooding caused by the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee damaged or destroyed many thousands of buildings and prompted President Barack Obama to issue a disaster declaration.
Situated along a bend in the river, about halfway between the northeastern Pennsylvania cities of Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, the borough featured graceful tree-lined streets and immaculate homes and yards until floodwaters remade the landscape, turning a leafy idyll nicknamed "the Garden Village" into a sodden, debris-choked mess.
Block by block, contractors and residents are gutting homes and businesses, leaving huge piles of refuse on the curbs – from floorboards and insulation to pianos and bronzed baby booties. River mud covers yards and sidewalks, and heavy equipment kicks up clouds of dust. Portable generators whine and hum. A foul odor lingers.
Borough officials say more than 250 homes were swamped to the first or second floors, another 600 had flooded basements, and 26 businesses sustained damage.
Downstream, the same levees that spared Wilkes-Barre and other towns from river flooding may have worsened the destruction in West Pittston by serving as a choke point for the flood-prone Susquehanna. There were other factors working against the borough, too. West Pittston's antiquated sewer system backed up, and a new bridge – built several feet lower than the span it replaced – acted as a dam.
But it's the lack of flood protection that gets people talking here.
"My neighbor said, `If it wasn't for those hoity-toities on Susquehanna Avenue, we wouldn't have this problem,'" said Economopolous' daughter, Krisa Malecki, 31, whose home was flooded. "I don't know if it was pull or money, but it was pretty stupid."
Therese Giambra, 61, who had to put her bedridden 84-year-old mother in a nursing home after the flood severely damaged their rented home, said she has wanted a levee for years.
"The riverbank is pretty when the cherry blossoms come out, I understand that," she said. "But this isn't pretty."
Nor, say some residents, are the recriminations. Angela Sperrazza, who has lived on Susquehanna Avenue for more than four decades, said she opposed a levee system in 1990 because she, like others, didn't want to be cut off from the river. Sperrazza treasured her century-old home's view and never imagined the Susquehanna would flood West Pittston the way it did this time.
Now a flood victim herself, Sperrazza said Susquehanna Avenue residents are being turned into scapegoats.
"The fiction is that we didn't want (levees), and that's why they're not here. But the government doesn't take orders from private citizens," said Sperrazza, a retired real estate agent who is 81 but looks 15 years younger. She said most people "did not like to disturb the scenery because that's what this town is noted for."
The devastation caused by Lee may have changed opinions. The mayor and city council have asked the Army Corps to take a new look at the feasibility of flood protection. And Sperrazza, who led a tour through her waterlogged home, said she now supports a dike.
"If it can spare people what they are going through now," she said, "then we must forsake the view."