Wyoming Valley Levee overseer Christopher Belleman is building a trained army of volunteer engineers and emergency responders ready for mobilizing when the next Susquehanna River flood hits.
“It’s been nearly seven years since the last major flood in our area, and since that time a number of people with institutional knowledge in flood fighting and the levee system are no longer here,” said Belleman, an engineer and executive director of the Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority that maintains and operates the levee.
Outside monitoring assistance is needed in floods because the levee system spans 16 miles and includes 13 pump stations, more than 120 underground wells to relieve water pressure and openings that must be filled with gates, panels and sandbags, he said.
Belleman is the only authority staff engineer, although another will be added when a new deputy position is filled, which will bring the employee count to 12.
Working with the Army Corps of Engineers, the authority held a training session last week for new volunteers to explain how to spot potential levee problems — including sand boils, seepage, scouring and sloughing — and methods to address them.
In the record September 2011 Susquehanna flood, some sections of the levee had to be reinforced with sandbags and several hundred tons of rock and dirt to plug paths under the levee that jeopardized its stability.
Approximately 40 volunteers, including several engineers, attended the training, Belleman said. It was conducted by two representatives of the Army Corps’ Baltimore District — emergency management specialist Leon Skinner and emergency management chief Dorie Murphy.
Kingston resident Brian Palmiter, a civil engineer at Borton-Lawson in Wilkes-Barre, is among the new volunteer recruits.
Palmiter said he was inspired to offer his services because several engineers at his company had volunteered in past floods and performed a valuable role.
A 2013 Wilkes University graduate, Palmiter also witnessed the importance of the levee when the Susquehanna swelled to 42.66 feet in 2011, forcing a mass evacuation.
The levee, which held back the river in 2011, was designed to protect 14,150 properties in 12 municipalities, officials have said.
“If there is a flood, I want to be the eyes and ears for any problems that arise,” said the 27-year-old Palmiter. “I want to be part of the effort to save the valley.”
Belleman said he obtained most of the engineer volunteers through the Keystone Northeast Chapter of the Pennsylvania Society of Professional Engineers, including Palmiter.
He plans to hold another training session later this year highlighting features of the complex local levee system and issues that erupted in 2011.
The next time the levee is activated, Belleman envisions teams of engineers assigned to patrol different stretches for maximum coverage.
Around 40 county deputy sheriffs also attended a separate condensed version of the training led by Skinner this week, Belleman said.
Preparing deputies to recognize possible levee problems makes sense because they are stationed near the flood-control system when the river rises to keep the public out of harm’s way, he said.
Periodic training sessions will be held to prepare new volunteers and refresh existing ones.
Detecting levee concerns can be particularly challenging if it is dark and stormy, said Belleman.
“The more that we can pre-arm these people with good information, the more we will be successful,” he said. “A flood is the last thing you want, but you must be ready.”
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.