Hundreds of Philly-area residents lost their homes in Ida. In one town, they wonder if they can ever rebuild.
In Montgomery and Chester Counties, a combined 537 people impacted by the flood are still homeless and living in hotels.
In a church parking lot, Mont Clare residents greet each other with hugs, their embraces long and tight. They share a smile and a nod that says, “I know what you’re going through.”
This is ground zero for Hurricane Ida’s destruction in Upper Providence Township, where in the first week of September, historic floods ravaged nearly 200 homes — about a quarter of the some 800 residences impacted across Southeastern Pennsylvania — displaced hundreds, and caused $120 million in public infrastructure damage.
Now, seven weeks after nearly eight feet of water gushed through residents’ doors, most homes along Walnut Street are empty and gutted, missing walls and floors. Some remain without water and power. Between Montgomery and Chester Counties, 537 people impacted by the flood are still homeless and living in hotels.
But in this lot on a chilly fall morning, flood survivors and volunteers who have supported them since that terrifying night share omelets, hope, and gratitude.
It’s not unusual to see a surge in community spirit after a disaster, but some 50 days later, these volunteers remain the backbone to the area’s recovery, as flood insurance funds are held up by bureaucracy, and as residents say communication and resources from township officials have been scant.
When residents shared breakfast last Sunday, some commented on the fact that officials from Phoenixville — a neighboring but separate borough — were present, but not their own.
“That’s the mayor we can’t even vote for,” Brenda Morgan said as Phoenixville Mayor Peter Urscheler hugged a Mont Clare resident. “I wonder where our township is.”
“They know our address to send us our tax bills, but don’t know our address to turn our power back on,” Nikki Milholin said jokingly.
Upper Providence Township officials said they’ve worked tirelessly behind the scenes coordinating recovery efforts. But they said they understand residents are in a difficult position, and plan to audit their response to learn from the experience. At this point, they said, people need to focus on reconstructing their homes and planning for the future.
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“No municipality can fight this climate change,” said Bill Starling, chair of the township supervisors. “It essentially made a piece of the township uninhabitable.”
So now, on top of the stress of piecing their lives back together, residents must decide whether, amid the ongoing threat of floods due to climate change, rebuilding is even feasible, or if they should sell their homes to the government and move on.
Mont Clare, a village of about 1,800 people, is located in Upper Providence Township, Montgomery County. With a median household income of about $61,000, it offers working-class residents a slice of historic paradise along the Schuylkill Canal. Infamous outlaw Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, better known as the Sundance Kid, lived there, and the Fitzwater Station restaurant down the street was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
The town almost feels rural, with crisp air and a robust canal ecosystem that supports wildlife and recreation.
Residents knew living here would require navigating frequently flooded basements, and many life-long residents experienced the once-historic flood brought by Hurricane Agnes in 1972.
But Ida’s wrath was nothing like they’d ever seen. The Schuylkill’s water rose so quickly that the township’s river gauges were overwhelmed and malfunctioned. Its bridge went under water.
Emergency responders rescued 195 people, some from their roofs. In total, 191 homes and 12 businesses were damaged. In Montgomery County, 392 people are still living in hotels paid for by the county, mostly residents from Norristown, Bridgeport, and the Mont Clare/Phoenixville area, a county spokesperson said.
Gerrie Cirigliano’s family is one of them. Like many along Port Providence Road, her home remains unlivable. The first floor is stripped to its bones, and the force of the water separated one wall from the foundation. Only three outlets work in the house. The water isn’t potable. She still can’t go into her family room — now a shell scattered with ruined family mementos — without choking up.
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Sometimes it becomes too much. But then she thinks of the women who’ve showed up nearly every day to help, or as she calls them, “Ida’s Angels,” and she keeps going.
Across the river in Phoenixville, Jesse Fischer was compelled to help. Fischer, who was on leave from work, made a Facebook group to coordinate donations and clean-up efforts.
The group grew to more than 1,600 members. Volunteers flocked in, ready to remove waterlogged furniture, gut walls, and help remediate mold.
Fischer coordinated everyone. Volunteers like Alicia Saladino cooked and delivered meals door to door. John Hegedus bought and delivered 360 pizzas. Mary DiMatteo gathered thousands of dollars in donations, purchasing gift cards, cleaning supplies, contractor bags, and more to give residents. Some women walked around filling their laundry baskets with neighbors’ clothes to wash, returning them fresh and folded. One even took in Cirigliano’s chickens.
“It feels like they were sent to us,” Cirigliano said. “Words can’t even express what they did for us.”
Phoenixville and Mont Clare are often thought of as one unit, but Phoenixville is a separate borough in Chester County, and has about eight times as many residents. Since it experienced significantly less damage than Mont Clare, its charitable organizations deployed resources there.
Officials like Phoenixville Mayor Urscheler went door to door offering resources. Karin Williams, the volunteer director of the borough’s Office of Emergency Management, landed a $300,000 grant from the Phoenixville Community Health Foundation to cut checks directly to impacted Mont Clare residents.
“A bridge should not stop people from getting resources,” Urscheler said.
Then residents started wondering, Where are our local officials?
Shortly after the flood, Upper Providence Township raised $10,605 on GoFundMe for residents, and provided a water tank, ice truck, Salvation Army food truck, and portable toilets along some streets. But the township said those resources were being underused, and took them away about three weeks later.
Residents like Cirigliano said that was not true, and that losing them was devastating. She and her neighbors had no refrigerators, working bathrooms, or water to clean their muck-covered belongings. Some people used dirty canal water to flush their toilets.
On Cirigliano’s block, no lights were set up outside, despite her three requests. With no electricity nearby, nights were pitch black. She would drive to a business’ parking lot to clean items under its lights.
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The township “separated” from its emergency management coordinator last week due to “ongoing performance issues” not specific to Ida, said Starling, of the township supervisors. He wouldn’t give details, citing employee privacy. The township plans to replace him.
At Monday’s township meeting, residents’ frustration boiled over. They told supervisors their communication was poor and questioned their lack of visibility in the community. Fischer asked why they had never contacted their volunteer group, even just to say thank you, and why volunteers, not township officials, were canvassing door-to-door to know who lacked water or power.
“Where have you been?” she asked.
In an interview, Starling said some residents’ frustrations were unfair, and that officials have coordinated tremendous efforts behind the scenes. Many issues, like insurance and electricity inspection delays, were out of their control, he said, and at the end of the day, it’s up to homeowners to fix their homes.
“It’s been all hands on deck. I could not be more pleased with the staff at the township,” he said, adding that nearly all other operations outside of flood recovery ceased for almost a month.
The township brought the water tank back out Wednesday following residents’ concerns. It plans to review their response in November to learn from this moving forward, he said. Residents now need to focus on submitting documentation to the government, getting their homes winterized, or making the tough decision to leave entirely, he said.
“In the end, maybe we were a little tone deaf on how we pulled some of the support items out,” he said. “This is very traumatizing. Their homes were inundated ... and now the best option they’re being offered is to accept a buyout and move away.”
Residents fed up with floods approached the township looking for information about the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s buyout program, a voluntary program where the government will buy homes in flood zones at pre-flood values, then raze the structure and create permanent green space. It lets the federal government avoid paying out further flooding claims from a homeowner through the National Flood Insurance Program, and helps municipalities create natural buffers.
The township recently hosted two meetings, attracting 90 people. It has also contracted someone to coordinate the buyout process, which can take over a year to complete, with interested residents.
Some residents have suggested the township engineer the river to prevent future flooding. Starling said that’s not financially feasible and would require a levee and 30-foot concrete wall. Residents, of course, have a right to stay, but there’s also potential for ordinances that require homes in certain areas to be lifted, he said, but that’s down the line.
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And what about the area’s history? “It’s heartbreaking,” he said.
Linda Jo Marosek, who grew up on Port Providence Road and now lives in her grandparents’ home, built in 1832, has been running from water her entire life. Enough is enough, she said. If the buyout offer is good, they’ll leave.
Brenda Morgan, a resident of 17 years, won’t. She loves it too much.
“The water makes me want to leave,” she said, “but the community makes me want to stay.”
A flag that reads “Don’t give up the ship” flies outside her home.
Staff writer Frank Kummer contributed to this article.