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Flood-proofing Bucks homes gets stimulus

The 7-year Neshaminy Creek project receives $10 million in U.S. funds.

Evidently, the cost of moving up is going up.

To reduce property damages and cut losses from the beleaguered National Flood Insurance Program, the government has spent $15 million to protect buildings in seven towns from the capricious Neshaminy Creek in Bucks County.

Now, officials say, the price tag has climbed to $25 million - about $8 million more than originally anticipated - and could go even higher.

A big cost-driver is the seven-year-old project's centerpiece - the elevation of about 150 structures, believed to be one of the biggest such projects ever.

Yesterday, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy (D., Pa.) announced that as part of the federal stimulus package, $10 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture would be earmarked to complete the elevations and other flood-proofing on more than 250 houses and businesses.

Murphy said the money would create 200 engineering and construction jobs over the next two years "and save taxpayers from costly repairs after the next major flood."

"It's great to see some of the stimulus money going toward mitigation projects, which will save lives and money over the long haul," said Butch Kinerney, spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA runs the flood-insurance program, which is $17.8 billion in debt.

The region has communities that are more flood-prone - such as Yardley, along the Delaware River in Bucks County, and West Norriton, on the Schuylkill in Montgomery County. But the seven Neshaminy towns have more than 120 "repetitive-loss" properties, ones on which flood claims have been filed two or more times, according to the Delaware River Basin Commission.

The elevations might help cut flood losses, but they have cost well more than anticipated, said Richard Manna, the Bucks County liaison on the project.

He said that, since the elevations started, labor and material costs had increased. The houses on which elevations were completed needed additional rooms to compensate for storage lost when the houses were raised above ground level. That meant additional expense.

Houses along the creek have been lifted from 31/2 to 14 feet. Jeff Mahood, the USDA environmental planning specialist, said he did not know how many elevations had been completed.

Manna said it might well have been safer and more cost-effective in the long run for the residents to move.

"My opinion is, people should get out of the flood plain," said M. Richard Nalbandian, a Temple University planning and water-resources expert.

But most of the Neshaminy property owners chose to stay put - a common desire, and one reason elevations have become more popular in recent years across the country.

That is also the solution favored by towns, which prefer tax-generating properties to empty lots.

As for the future of the Neshaminy project, Mahood said, the new funding doesn't guarantee it.

"It's only back for the stimulus."