Town hall topics in Chester County: Rising inflation, recovery from historic floods

EASTTOWN — Inflation is rising.

During this last year, the energy index rose 41.6 percent, the U.S. Department of Labor reported in June. The gasoline index increased 59.9 percent during this same span, the largest 12-month increase in that index since March 1980.

Also in June, the U.S. inflation rate hit 9.1 percent, breaking a previously held 40-year record.

U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-6th of Easttown, held a virtual forum on Wednesday to discuss inflation and the economy with constituents. She answered vetted questions alongside special guest Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics.

“Although our economy has restored or created more than 5 million jobs since January 2021, our community and our country continue to face higher prices for everyday essentials like groceries and gas,” Houlahan said.

“Inflation is certainly impacting us all,” she said at the beginning of the forum.

Even babies. The nation is facing a shortage in baby formula, as previously reported, and prices are up at the grocery store.

“As we know, gas is more expensive. Food is more expensive. Vacations are more expensive. School supplies are more expensive — Penn State just got more expensive,” Houlahan said.

She said there’s been a series of global shocks to the economy.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, beginning in 2020, Congress provided $2.6 trillion in emergency assistance for people, businesses, the health care system, and state and local governments, through four COVID-19-related relief bills.

In November, President Biden signed Congress’ bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which the White House called “a once-in-a-generation investment in our nation’s infrastructure.”

The measure — considered the largest federal investment in public transit ever — earmarked $110 billion in funding for bridges, roads and flagship infrastructure projects, according to the White House.

For many, this was welcome news to Coatesville, which sustained significant flooding during the historic Tropical Storm Ida, which caused catastrophic damages a year ago and changed the business landscape in some Chester County and nearby regional communities.

For instance, after Ida, Wawa never reopened its doors in Downingtown.

In Delaware County, Hank’s Place has yet to fully reopen its doors, with the owners now on a mission to rebuild with a new state-of-the-art structure to serve patrons lunch and breakfast — and a structure built well over the floodplain, as the Brandywine Creek watershed is adjacent to the parcel at the corner of U.S. Route 1 and Creek Road.

Yet in Chester County’s only city, Coatesville, there’s been few changes to the municipality’s century-old infrastructure since Ida, despite the passage of the infrastructure investment bill last fall.

Infrastructure investment

Pennsylvania features 83,184 miles of streams and rivers, more than 4,000 lakes, reservoirs, and ponds, and 120 miles of coastal waters, according to Penn State University.

The Commonwealth is home to more than 25,400 state-owned bridges.

Pennsylvania will receive $1.6 billion for bridge improvements, including for off-system bridges, over the next five years from the new federal act, as previously reported.

Additional money en route to Pennsylvania for infrastructure investments includes funds set for $11.3 billion for the federal highway program: $2.8 billion for public transportation; $1.4 billion for water infrastructure, as previously reported.

The federal government is also sending the Keystone State, by way of Harrisburg, $171 million for electric vehicle charging infrastructure and $100 million for broadband development.

Located 39 miles west of Philadelphia, 13,350 people live in the City of Coatesville.

The municipality, first developed in the 1700s, neighbors South Coatesville Borough and the Borough of Modena.

Nearly one year ago, the city declared a state of emergency with the arrival of Tropical Storm Ida on September 1. More than 10 inches of water hit some regions along the Delaware River during the post-tropical storm.

Coatesville homeowners were severely impacted by the remnants of Hurricane Ida, which hit the city on September 1, 2021. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

In Coatesville City, 100-year-old infrastructure compounded the impact when the valley flooded, as the municipality sits in direct proximity of the Brandywine Creek.

More than 100 families became displaced from their homes in the City of Coatesville as rainfall from Ida caused historic floodwaters to engulf both residential and commercial buildings. In some places, the floodwaters reached as high as stop octagons and street signs. The sections of the city were hit hardest by the flooding that occurred on Fifth, Sixth and Olive streets.

“Hurricane Ida delivered up to seven feet of flood water over six hours that damaged more than 60 homes and rental properties,” said Coatesville City Manager James Logan on September 3. “95 percent of those properties housed renters who may be displaced anywhere from weeks to months.”

The National Centers for Environmental Information, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a scientific and regulatory agency within the United States Department of Commerce, recorded more than 300 separate U.S. billion-dollar disaster events from 1980 to 2021.

“Hurricane Ida’s impacts along the Gulf Coast and the Northeast are still accumulating and might surpass Hurricane Sandy in terms of total costs, inflation-adjusted to present-day dollars,” said Adam Smith, an applied climatologist with NOAA.

“The top five most costly disasters to strike the U.S. since January 1, 2000, are all from hurricanes,” Smith said.

These multi-billion events include Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Hurricane Maria in 2017, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and Hurricane Ida in 2021.

Ida hit the North Atlantic seaboard 11 months ago. The hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached Southeastern Pennsylvania on September 1, 2021 — yet the flooding caused by Ida brought historic and deadly damages to the region.

There was one civilian fatality in Downingtown, as a result of Ida’s wrath. Four first responders were injured while performing rescue operations.

Chester County Commissioners approved a Declaration of Disaster Emergency because of Ida. The county’s 9-1-1 Communications Center processed over 4,000 calls, resulting in over 300 storm-related rescues in a ten-hour time frame during Tropical Storm Ida.

“Hurricane Ida had a devastating impact on small businesses in our community, as demonstrated by the Small Business Administration’s approval of over $50 million in Home and Personal Property and Business Physical Disaster Loans across the Commonwealth, and over $7.5 million in Chester County alone,” said Houlahan on June 27 after departing from a town forum in West Grove.

In March, during a town hall event at the Coatesville City Hall, Houlahan said that people can submit grant proposals, via a competitive process, to receive funds through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Houlahan is a member of the House Small Business Committee. In 2021 she received the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Abraham Lincoln Leadership for America Award.

“I’ve had the opportunity to talk with many business owners who continue to struggle or had to make the difficult decision to shut their doors due to the damages and loss they experienced,” Houlahan said.

“I’m continuing to work with the Small Business Administration and businesses who reach out to my offices for assistance and legislatively in my work on the House Small Business Committee on ways to improve these programs so that businesses get the support they need,” the congresswoman said.

Earlier this summer, regarding needed stormwater upgrades, Houlahan told the Daily Local News that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act reauthorizes the existing sewer overflow and stormwater reuse municipal grants program with increased funding of $280 million each year for five years, with 25 percent set aside for projects in rural or financially distressed communities.

The Act “also authorizes $50 million — over five years — for a new competitive grant for stormwater control infrastructure projects incorporating new and emerging but proven stormwater control technologies,” Houlahan said. “I’m hopeful these funding opportunities will be of great use to our local community’s needs.”

As of June 27, Houlahan submitted ten projects to the Appropriations Committee for consideration, and nine of these projects were approved and funded this year, including $271,169 to West Grove Borough to repair the municipality’s 60-year-old sewer system slated to prevent catastrophic environmental damage without intervention.

Houlahan said 10,000 constituents call her offices, in West Chester, Washington, D.C. and Reading, each month.

People often call, seeking congressional support to overcome a problem or offer commentary regarding local, regional, state, federal and international matters.

Approximately 700,000 people live within the Congressional 6th District of Pennsylvania, which spans most of Chester County and some of Berks County.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 521,980 people live in Chester County.

Chester County is the highest income earning county in Pennsylvania. The median wage is $52,711 for an individual and $104,161 for a household.

Houlahan is up for reelection in November. The U.S. Air Force veteran is presently serving her second term in Congress. She is being challenged by newcomer Guy Ciarrocchi of Paoli. Ciarrocchi is a Republican and previously served as chief executive officer and president of the Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry.

Life support ‘crisis’

In other Chester County news, first responders are bracing for the immediate closure of several Medic 93 unit-locations on Sept.1.

On a brighter note, from both well-being and economic perspectives, ChristianaCare has purchased Jennersville Regional Hospital, plus 24 adjacent acres and two office buildings, for $8 million from Tower Health in June.

Seven months ago, Tower Health closed Jennersville Regional Hospital in Penn Township. Then six months ago, Tower Health shut down Brandywine Hospital. With these closures, medics have already been traveling greater distances to bring patients to further away hospitals.

And now, within the next two months, western Chesco areas formerly served by these still-closed hospitals will lose the services of West Reading-based Tower Health Advanced Life Support ambulances, also known as Tower Direct. Tower Health took ownership of Medic 93 advanced life support units years ago in a purchase agreement to buy Brandywine Hospital.

People await the start of a Keystone Valley Fire Department informational session on Emergency Medical Services and the need for Advanced Life Support on July 27 at Parkesburg Point. (JEN SAMUEL ??People await the start of a Keystone Valley Fire Department informational session on Emergency Medical Services and the need for Advanced Life Support on July 27 at Parkesburg Point. (JEN SAMUEL — MEDIANEWS GROUP)

This impacts the time and duration it will take emergency responders to provide advanced life support (ALS) services to people living in the western edge of the county including Parkesburg and in Caln and Coatesville.

The decision to remove Medic 93 ALS services from Chester County’s western region was a decision announced by Tower Health in June.

Besides Coatesville, Parkesburg and Caln, until September 1, Medic 93 units provide primary Advanced Life Support coverage to Modena, South Coatesville, West Brandywine, East Brandywine, Newlin and West Bradford.

However, first responders predict that losing Medic 93 units in Western Chester County will — at a ratio of 100 percent — impact the entire county, as other ALS-equipped ambulances from further away will be called to help answer those emergency needs, leaving their own communities vulnerable to less emergency medical services available at home when needed.

“In partnership with Keystone Valley Regional Fire District and all the municipalities in which we serve, we are all working together for a resolution, and also addressing the matter collectively,” said Fire Chief Brian Gathercole of the Keystone Valley Fire Department on Saturday.

The chief said this is a problem that not only impacts the communities where Medic 93 is presently based, but rather a problem that affects the many multi-first responder agencies and services helping people in need across the entire region.

“This is a crisis,” he said.

In the spring, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced that two Pennsylvania veteran affairs medical centers may close, including the Coatesville Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

“It’s our sacred obligation to care for our veterans,” Biden said on Sunday via Twitter.

The Coatesville Veterans Affairs Medical Center serves 20,000 veterans every year and recently celebrated its 91st anniversary in May.

“We need to continue to focus on providing the best possible care to the 19,000 veterans we serve annually,”  Jeffrey Beiler II, director of the Coatesville Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said in a statement released to the public on the potential closure.

The historic facility, on top of a hill in Caln Township overlooking the City of Coatesville, employs 1,300 people including approximately 500 veterans.

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