Etna, Pennsylvania

Small Town Uses CRS to Build Resilience

“We want our future community to be an attractive place that is thriving and economically sound,” Mary Ellen Ramage, Borough Manager for Etna, Pennsylvania, explains when talking about the work the community has done, especially since Hurricane Ivan in 2004. “We knew that action in the present was needed to protect the future.”

Etna is a small, older community situated on the north bank of the Allegheny River in eastern Pennsylvania. Its 3,505 people occupy less than one square mile of steep hillsides and narrow creek bottoms. Settled in 1826 and incorporated in 1868, Etna has a lot of history and many older structures and neighborhoods.

A view of city sidewalks with combination drain-and-infiltration openings, decoratively installed.
A view of city sidewalks with combination drain-and-infiltration openings, decoratively installed.

That character sometimes exacts a price, however. About one-third of the community’s properties lie within the mapped special flood hazard area (about 550 structures). Although flooding can come from two creeks and the Allegheny River (the creeks topped their banks twice in 33 years), most flood problems occur when a storm runs through the community and street and backup flooding occur. Like many communities that were established many decades ago, Etna has a combined sewage and stormwater system. So high amounts of runoff tend to overwhelm the system, backing up drainageways and, as an added problem, raising water quality and health issues. Localized flooding and sewer backflow had become major challenges.

“Most people did not want to acknowledge the situation for fear that it would drive down property values,” says Ramage. But then, in 2004, Hurricane Ivan brought major flooding—400 homes and the entire City Hall saw major damage. “We wanted to embrace our community’s character along with the accompanying problems, and develop a course of action for dealing with it,” Ramage says. “As it turned out, the Community Rating System provided the tools to help us become a more sustainable and livable community.”

Stepping Toward Resilience

Etna approached everything– from improved regulations to information on how to elevate structures and things inside the structures, improved storm infrastructure, emergency response plans, sewer backup valves, education, and more. Through the CRS the community was able to access valuable information about things they could do to deal with the floods they had to live with.

An early direction was defining and writing a comprehensive flood response plan. “We developed a whole new, more sophisticated warning system,” Ramage says, and the CRS’s step-by-step procedure helped pull the entire flood emergency response system together and made it more comprehensive. “That was the start.”

Developing a flood damage ordinance was crucial, too, “not just to get more CRS points, but to let us live here with less damage caused by floods,” noted Ramage. “The message we were trying to get out was that there was nothing we could do or build to prevent flooding in Etna. But we can lessen the impacts.”

Communicating to the citizens has become a focus of the local initiatives. Drawing from CRS guidance in the CRS Coordinator’s Manual, the CRS website, newsletters, and technical assistance, Etna developed a plan of action for educating its citizens. “It’s a very realistic approach,” Ramage comments. Through the CRS, Etna also learned what other communities in similar situations were doing and how it could be done.

To provide continuous, easily accessible information, Etna supplemented its quarterly newsletter with a website, and completely overhauled the website in 2013. The flood section of the award-winning website is constantly updated to keep the citizens accurately informed and aware about all the aspects of flooding and what can be done about it now. “A lot of what we have on the web site came from CRS guidance. It was a great, great help.”

Today, Etna is a Class 8 community in the CRS, earning about $25,000 annually in flood insurance premium reductions for its residents, and is better equipped to co-exist with its flood hazard. “I can’t even describe everything we have done since 2004. It has been pretty extensive and pretty incredible,” Ramage concludes. “It all came together and the CRS showed us how to connect the dots.”

This is just a glimpse of the floodplain management activities underway in Etna. For more information, see the community’s website.

Etna Poster
A poster illustrates the installation of infiltration in a parking lot.