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Brenda Whitfield’s Saturn Place home seemed like the ideal place to raise a family when she moved to the street that borders a low-lying field in the Eastwick neighborhood of Southwest Philadelphia over 40 years ago.
“We just knew we were buying land in a neighborhood that had top 10 schools,” Whitfield said. Pregnant with her second child at the time, it was a top priority.
Two decades later, in 1999, the local middle school her children had attended endured 9 feet of flooding, resulting in damages over $1 million. “People often ask why you move to a flood zone,” Whitfield said, “but you move because the realtors don’t mention it.”
Eastwick, a predominantly Black neighborhood with an average household income of $40,000, is one of many communities of color nationwide disproportionately affected by urban flooding. It rests on the lowest spot in the city and is surrounded by water — the Darby and Cobbs creeks to the west and Schuylkill River to the east.
As storms intensified amid climate change, the area has been hit again and again. President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, signed into law mid-November, pledges billions in funding for FEMA to help communities prepare for climate disasters. Though there’s a movement to make Eastwick one of the places helped under the plan, it’s still unclear whether it will happen.
Across the U.S., people of color are overrepresented in flood exposure “hotspots,” according to a study published in Natural Hazards this year. Homeowners in Eastwick have noticed.
Leo Brundage, a retired ironworker and longtime resident, feels his neighborhood has not been prioritized. “I’m asking myself: Is this because of the demographics of the community?”
Whitfield, now a grandmother, echoed Brundage’s concern. There have always been “little floods,” she said, but “no one wanted to listen to a middle-class area with Blacks moving in.”
It wasn’t until the 4-foot floodwaters caused by Hurricane Floyd in 1999 that the city started paying attention, she said. Since Floyd, the Army Corps of Engineers has been conducting flood mitigation studies, but residents are frustrated by the lack of real results.
This October, the corps presented its study to the Eastwick community advisory group.
Brundage, who serves as an advisory group leader, said he’s tired of hearing about new studies. Another meeting is scheduled, and he hopes officials say something concrete about “if they want to help us or not.”
When Hurricane Isaias hit in 2020, Brundage said he dealt with over $60,000 worth of damage.
“I’m 77 years old, and so I’m trying to live what little life I have left the best,” he said. “Not having this post-traumatic stress because every time it rains, we get flooded.”
Funding to repair the rec center — or to relocate?
72-year-old Phyllis Glenn’s home is on the same street as the one Whitfield bought 40 years ago: Saturn Place. It runs along the edge of a field bordering Cobbs Creek, which regularly surges during storms.
The situation makes night time rain “really scary,” Glenn said, because you can’t keep an eye on the rising water. Standing on her front porch and minding her young grandson, she called the continuous flooding “absolutely devastating.”
She inherited her house from her father, whom she witnessed cope with Hurricane Floyd. When Hurricane Ida hit, this year, Glenn said the water crept halfway up the field.
A lot of the neighbors spend time staring out their back windows when it rains. “You develop PTSD,” said 55-year-old educator Sharon Truxon. “We have to keep rebuilding,” she added, “and at a certain point, you don’t have the resources.”
The basketball courts behind Saturn Place remain eroded from water damage a year after Isaias, leaving children unable to shoot hoops.
Whitfield said the adjacent recreation center also flooded — a space that used to serve as a vibrant home for community activity. Whitfield fondly recalled meeting there for crochet classes, while others played pinnacle games.
The community received a grant to restore the center, neighbors said, but until recently work was delayed.
After Hurricane Isaias, Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management conducted a damage assessment in Eastwick and neighboring counties through an online survey, canvassing, and contacting political and community leaders.
Using that information, Gov. Tom Wolf requested a major disaster declaration and corresponding public assistance for counties including Philadelphia. An administration spokesperson, Elizabeth Rementer, said their request was denied.
However, Rementer said some federal aid was provided in the form of low-interest loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration.
That’s not the same as emergency assistance, Whitfield pointed out. “We were told, ‘You can get a low-interest rate loan,'” she said. “If it wasn’t for the Red Cross, there would have been no aid without us helping ourselves.”
Josh Lippert, former Philadelphia city floodplain manager, said the Infrastructure and Investment Act would put a lot of money into FEMA programs to potentially help climate-vulnerable communities like Eastwick.
The city is submitting six projects for various FEMA assistance programs to the state emergency management office for review, according to an Office of Emergency Management spokesperson.
Whether or not Eastwick will get help through these grants hinges on both state and FEMA approval. Whitman hopes it does. She also hopes for progress on the program to relocate residents out of the flood zone — but she’ll be sad to go.
“When we moved to this neighborhood,” Whitfield said, “it’s like any neighborhood — you want to leave a legacy for generations to come.”