Whether there’s a lack of it or an excess, water is a common thread throughout climate change concerns across the world, including here in Philadelphia.
Parts of the Germantown neighborhood are particularly prone to the effects of urban flooding due to geography, circumstances of its past, and potential impacts of the future.
Given the longstanding history of flooding and a need to connect with the community on this issue, the City of Philadelphia Flood Management Program established the Germantown Community Flood Risk Management Task Force in February 2020 to engage residents through a neighborhood-based stakeholder coalition.
This task force was designed to provide opportunities for Germantown community leaders to engage with City officials around the concerns associated with flooding.
The goal: increase information sharing and flood preparation knowledge while reducing Germantown flood impacts.
With guidance from the U.S. Water Alliance, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to managing water issues in a sustainable and inclusive manner, we connected with various Germantown stakeholders, including Registered Community Organizations (RCO) representatives, religious leaders, and business owners, to form the task force.
To understand flooding risks in Germantown, we have to look at how the neighborhood and its infrastructure developed over the course of the last 200 years…
Germantown Sewer System: Looking Back, Looking Ahead
As Philadelphia grew during the 18th and 19th centuries, waterways across the city were used to dispose of household and industrial waste. Creeks and streams were polluted and transformed into open-air sewers, which posed public health hazards, including the spread of deadly water-transmitted diseases, such as cholera and typhoid fever.
In an attempt to solve this public health problem, the City converted many of these polluted streams into sewer pipes. One of these streams was Wingohocking Creek, which flowed from Mount Airy, through Germantown, and emptied into the Frankford Creek in Juniata Park. Starting in 1879, the City began enclosing the Wingohocking section in a giant sewer, a project that took almost 50 years to complete. Today, only a few hundred feet of the creek exists above ground in Awbury Arboretum.
During heavy rainstorms today, the underground sewers carrying stormwater along the path of the old Wingohocking sometimes quickly become overwhelmed, propelling water above ground and causing dangerous flooding in basements and streets.
This type of flooding is classified as infrastructure flooding or urban flash flooding by the City.
As temperatures rise due to climate change, the atmosphere will be able to retain more moisture, leading to more intense rainfall. In Philadelphia, this will be experienced as an increase in the most intense storms that we see, which could lead to more destructive flooding—if steps are not taken to address the issue of aging infrastructure and rising temperatures.
In identifying future infrastructure needs, the Water Department’s Climate Change Adaptation Program cites research indicating that if emissions aren’t reduced, there will be significant increases in annual and seasonal precipitation amounts in Philadelphia. Compared to rainfall from 1997 to 2017, the average annual total rainfall (inches per year) may increase nearly 10 percent by mid-century (2050-2070) and nearly 13 percent by the end of the century (2080-2100.)
Creation of Community Flooding Task Force
Seeking community-focused strategies to address this growing concern, our Public Engagement Team and other City representatives participated in the U.S. Water Alliance’s Equity in Climate Resilience & Urban Flooding Bootcamp in summer 2019. The event, which convened water sector professionals and community leaders from around the country, aimed to foster discussions and solutions around urban flooding responses through equitable approaches.
For Water Department representatives, the goal of the workshop was to strengthen partnerships with community leaders from Philly in general while specifically developing a local community task force to mitigate urban flooding in Germantown.
During 2020, the first task force meetings (both in-person and virtual) were hosted by the City’s Flood Management program along with the Water Department and other City representatives, including License and Inspection and the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management.
Meeting participants covered the history of flooding in Germantown and distributed materials for residents, including flood insurance information, Philadelphia’s flooding guide, basement protection resources, the FRMTF 2019 Strategic Plan Executive Summary, and copies of the executive summary of the Germantown Storm Flood Relief Study.
The committee also collaborated on a fact sheet, Why Germantown Floods.
“It’s important establishing that connection and being clear that they do have a place where they can communicate their questions and concerns,” says Water Department Community Outreach Specialist Maura Jarvis. “We brought leaders from all over the neighborhood together. We’re hearing from people to tell us their thoughts and what their solutions to flooding would be.”
For task force representatives, it’s essential to educate communities on critical information, including that there is no section of Germantown that is recognized as an official floodplain by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)/National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). That means residents are not required to have flood insurance.
“We want to ensure residents are informed about flooding and can do what they can to prepare now for future floods. Getting everyone prepared in case of emergencies will ensure the safety of Germantown residents and minimize property damage,” says Water Department planner Hailey Stern. “We’re currently looking into ways we can promote flood insurance equitably in Germantown so residents can be protected.”
Do you lead a community group or coalition in Germantown?
Contact Maura Jarvis at Maura.Jarvis@phila.gov to get involved in the Germantown Community Flood Risk Management Task Force.
Want to find out about upcoming Water Department Events?
Or text PWD Events to 468311.
Need Flooding Resources?
Be prepared before flooding occurs:
Flooding preparedness can make a major difference in managing future impacts.
- Check out the PWD Basement Protection Programto determine if it could help you.
- Even if you don’t think you are near a waterway, avoid basement storage of valuable possessions, such as photos, artwork, or documents. (You don’t want them getting damaged!)
- If you experienced flooding at your property before, flood insurance is strongly recommended.
- Get emergency text and email alerts from Ready Philadelphia. Sign up at: www.phila.gov/ready
- Share this information with neighbors.
If your home floods:
- First, stay safe. If you can safely access your circuit breaker, turn off the electricity to the affected area. Never stand in water unless you know the electricity is off!
- Don’t delay. Call the Philadelphia Water Department at (215) 685-6300 to report a water emergency. Our inspectors need to visit while water is still on site.
We need to record flooding incidents to help us plan better in the future. Please help us by telling us about what happened on your property to assist the City.