Scars have remained from the 1971 flood that devastated Chester

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Eyre Park was a tight and lively Chester settlement where alumni fondly remember summers of hiding, water balloon fights, jarring lightning beetles, and the frantic hunt for ice cream trucks in a neighborhood they never wanted to leave.

“It was a great place to grow up,” said Jim Liounis, who lived there for 12 years and organizes a neighborhood meeting. “You can not ask for more.”

Save for a less dangerous setting, that is.

Eyre Park was on a peninsula ensnared by an opaque stream that dutifully carried dirty water to a river the color of factory smoke, unsuitable for swimming, and inhabited by homely whiskered catfish that looked like they were out prehistory swam, only suitable for throwing back into the stream.

50 years ago the stream became a killer. A five-meter-high tidal wave – more violent than Ida’s worst flood in the Philadelphia area – broke out of Chester Creek, killing 10 people in Chester, raging downtown, devastating shops and effectively destroying Eyre Park, displacing 216 households, under 450 citywide.

For Chester, the 1971 flood was a terrible attack at an extremely vulnerable time in a city that had already lost population, jobs and industry on the riverside and was recovering from the racial struggles of the turbulent 1960s.

The consequences were a disaster in itself. The owners of Eyre Park begged the city to condemn the mud-filled neighborhoods they once loved.

It became a case study of the dangers of risky building in an era that marked a turning point in the nation’s Sisyphus and increasingly costly struggles with floods, which climate and development patterns suggest could only get worse.

And it became a case study of how a disaster can affect a neighborhood, and in this case an entire city, now home to 34,000 people – more than 25,000 fewer than in 1970 – of which almost a third live in poverty.

At the site of the former settlement, a memorial to the flood victims marks the entrance to the Eyre Park Levee Trail, which was inaugurated in March and was part of what Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland described as the “transformation” of the area.

But the recovery of the economy was a 50-year struggle for the only town in Delaware County, said Stefan Roots, who was 10 when his father made a deposit on a house in Eyre Park just before the flood.

“I call it our Katrina,” he said.

A foot plus in rain

What exactly caused the deadly waves to crash through a dike remains unclear. The mayor at the time blamed a faulty dike construction and a closed railway bridge.

The US Geological Survey blamed the more than 30 centimeters of rain – better than a season’s worth – that fell over a period of three days in late August on terrain saturated by tropical storms. Much of it came on the 13th. It was said that the flooding had been exacerbated by “various structures” in the stream.

What is clear is that the neighborhood had a robust flood history. The Chester Creek flooding was observed by early European settlers in 1693. But as evidence that even the obvious is sometimes true, a federal report said it “didn’t become a problem until development took place in the floodplains,” a reality that is still inexorably affecting the whole country.

Some local residents later said they would never have bought a house in Eyre Park if they knew about the dangers. Lenton Warren, Roots’ father, said no one told him about this when he made his deposit.

All he knew was that the house and neighborhood were what he wanted for his wife, son, and daughter, and that he was eager to join Eyre Park’s handful of black families.

All about Chester

“If you work in Chester why don’t you live in Chester?”

That was the selling point in the Chester Times ad for the three-bedroom Eyre Park Homes in 1939. The brick houses sold for about $ 95,000 in today’s dollars, and yes, a lot of people worked in Chester.

The riverside factories were on fire during World War I and another war boom was imminent. At the height of World War II, the Sun Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co. employed 34,000 people.

Downtown department stores – Speare Brothers, Weinberg’s, Sears & Roebuck, Stotters – flourished, as did the supermarkets and sandwich shops that supplied the people who made the ships, anchors, and automobiles.

In 1950 more than 66,000 people lived in a busy city. Eyre Park was right in the thick of it – just a short walk from downtown, schools, and a spacious park.

“Back then, children were allowed to play outside until late at night,” says Lisa Sibley, whose parents bought a house there in 1966. Relatives lived two blocks away. She remembered playing dodgeball with her uncle against the walls of the new YMCA building near the creek bank

The families were close, their children went to school together, and likely did other things that wouldn’t appear in the average Norman Rockwell painting.

But the post-war years brought floods to the city’s factories and radical changes in demographics.

From 1960 to 1980 the population collapsed by almost 30% as the surrounding cities with their attractive new apartments grew rapidly. The exodus of white families from Chester is well documented, and today the city’s population is approximately 80% colored.

Trees as lifelines

Nature fired warning shots at Eyre Park with severe flooding in 1950, after which the Army Corp of Engineers built a levee and made recommendations that seemed to be gathering dust, and in 1955. Jim Liounis, whose family had moved a few years later, remembered well about this.

He still had friends in Eyre Park and feared for their life that rainy Monday in 1971.

He went to Jim Cowan’s house to help rescue and evacuate everything. Cowan and Liounis wisely gave up the rescue operation and decided to flee. Liounis led Cowan and looked back, and they walked one behind the other on the highest ground they could find. But “this water flowed through. I could barely stand on my feet, the current was so strong. I was scared to death. “

To his horror, Cowan had disappeared at some point, swept away by the floods, and presumably drowned. To his relief, Liounis later learned that Cowan had somehow managed to hold on to a tree. He was about to give up when a lifeboat passed.

Several other stories emerge in which people save their lives by using trees as lifelines. Some of the rescue stories were terrifying.

Lifeboats tried to rescue a crowd of evacuees huddled in the stern of a dump truck that was stranded in the flood. In a harrowing story told in the Daily Times, one of these boats encountered a partially submerged traffic light after a pickup truck and took in water, spilling an elderly couple who were washed away by the floods and drowned.

Past and future of the flood

Nowadays, flood insurance in floodplains is a mortgage requirement. That was not the case in 1971.

None of the homes in Eyre Park had flood insurance, which was just available under the brand new National Flood Insurance Program, which Chester – along with most communities – was not yet participating in.

The government got into the business because private insurers didn’t want any part of the flood cover because the floods were so ubiquitous.

The program is inundated with red ink because the payouts have far exceeded the rewards, especially since 2005, the year of Katrina. NFIP is a burden on taxpayers because the Treasury has to cover the deficits.

According to the Government Accounting Office, NFIP’s debt was $ 20.5 billion as of August 2020. That’s more than $ 16 billion that was awarded in October 2017.

Eyre Park would likely have been in a high risk zone, but the government didn’t release its first flood insurance tariff cards until the late 1970s.

Had the houses survived, FEMA, which runs the insurance program, might have bought them and demolished them. This saves disbursement costs for properties at risk of flooding, but the Government Accountability Office points out that this strategy works, but “the number of such properties continues to grow”.

“A punch in the pit of the stomach”

“We could literally be standing in someone’s living room,” said Stefan Roots in the parking lot of the Levee Trail Park. He works for Delcora, the sewage company, and is now involved in politics and running for the city council.

He remembered a fire closing the city’s ice rink three years before the flood. He expected it to reopen in a few months. It never did, and that was “a punch in the pit of the stomach for many of us”.

But he said nothing prepared him for permanent business loss in the years following the flood. “To see that our downtown area has not been revitalized is really heartbreaking,” he said.

“Look, we’re into something that never came back as a neighborhood. This is the city you won’t come back to. “

Roots cited a refrain on the city’s merits known to those who have pondered Chester’s economic profile – a riverside, railroad, proximity to Philadelphia International Airport that most Philadelphians would envy, a good one Autobahn connection, a large university with an extensive campus.

Chester, he said, is in “a perfect position. It has the bones to carry twice as many people. We have so much space to bring things here. “

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