Relief may finally be in sight for residents of a Harrisburg neighborhood which has been plagued with sinkholes for more than two years.
Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development Secretary Dennis Davin said $8.5 million in federal disaster relief funds will be used at four sites around the state — around South 14th Street as well as at three flood-ravaged locations in other counties.
That comes after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave state officials permission to use the funding for sinkhole remediation, something DCED said had not been done before.
While the total cost is not yet known, Davin and other officials touring the street’s 1400 block on Tuesday told residents they believe the money will be enough to buy and raze all 53 affected homes, though the project may have to proceed in two phases.
If more money is needed, “we have no problem going back to ask for additional funding,” Davin told residents.
Part of the issue is that the project is voluntary, so Davin said it’s not clear yet how many residents would take buyouts.
The holes first opened up in March 2014. The consequences have ranged from lost yards and mold problems to structural damage and buildings visibly shifting.
Some residents have moved away, despite being unable to sell their homes, while many with mortgages, such as Maria Vargas-Graves, have been stuck in limbo while they awaited word on when a buyout might proceed.
While her home was not affected as dramatically as some others in the block, Vargas-Graves said cracks inside the house have her in constant fear of shifting ground doing serious damage.
Vargas-Graves also has been a vocal advocate for the neighborhood, and was front and center Tuesday with questions for Davin and other officials who toured the block.
“I have three kids. You sit up every night, worried,” she said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Rift with Papenfuse?
The tour and announcement drew fire from Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse, who did not attend, and who said the tour — announced Monday afternoon — was offensive to residents.
A statement released by Papenfuse’s office said he refused to participate in the tour and asked the department to delay holding any event on South 14th Street until residents could be informed and prepared for media coverage.
Residents had contacted the City to complain about DCED conducting a tour and press conference in the area without informing them, the statement added. The family of a 92-year-old resident called city officials to object to “his being disturbed by the onslaught of media and officials in the neighborhood,” the mayor’s office said.
“These residents have been through a lot and should not be viewed as backdrop for a photo op,” Papenfuse said. “To the extent this event is important, there needs to be outreach first and a clear set of priorities conveyed to the residents.”
Now that funding has been secured to address the sinkhole issue, “all agencies involved should be sitting down and rolling up their sleeves to make sure relief comes as quickly and efficiently as possible for those affected,” he added.
Davin said it was a chance for him and other key officials to see the damage first-hand.
“I’ve never had the opportunity to tour the area,” he said.
The Mayor refused to participate in the tour and asked the department to delay holding any event on South 14th Street until residents could be informed and prepared for media coverage.
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Phase one of the work will cover the voluntary acquisition and demolition of the first 25 homes, between Cloverly Terrace and Magnolia Street, DCED officials said. Phase two will cover the remainder of the block.
According to DCED, the site will be excavated to a depth of 10 feet after demolition and backfilled, with possible future use as greenspace.
“On behalf of Harrisburg City Council, we would like to extend our sincere appreciation and gratitude to all those involved in securing additional funding for the residents of South 14th Street,” said Harrisburg City Council President Wanda Williams, who did attend the tour.
“These funds will help the homeowners who have been displaced and suffered great agony over having to leave their homes,” Williams added. “We look forward to giving them some peace of mind after all they have been through.”
The announcement comes one month after Gov. Tom Wolf announced that the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency received approval for $1.65 million in federal funding through Federal Emergency Management Agency. DCED this year identified the sinkhole area as a priority for disaster relief federal funding.
“The sinkholes have caused numerous problems for families living along 14th Street, so this is good news for the neighbors who have been suffering while waiting for a solution,” said state Sen. Rob Teplitz (D-Dauphin).
Stephen Bekanich, Director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency’s Bureau of Recovery and Mitigation, said further announcements should be made in the next two weeks about meetings to be held with residents about how the buyout process will work.