Five years ago, a sinkhole began to swallow up the 1400-block of S. 14th Street in Harrisburg. On Thursday, the once-residential area began a new era as a community green space.
City, state and federal officials–and some former residents–gathered at the South 14th Street Open Space, a new, 2.4-acre city park, which, until recently, was occupied by rows of small, 1950s-era houses and a street.
“I just never saw so much open space over here,” said former S. 14th Street resident Rhonda Scott, who had lived in the neighborhood for 28 years. “It’s bittersweet; everybody was over here for a long time.”
In 2014, the disaster affected 53 homes, throwing some residents out of their houses and endangering others.
Roads, sidewalks and yards were damaged as well—making it a problem the city needed to solve. At the time, Harrisburg, just out of receivership, was in no financial condition to be tackling an issue this big, Mayor Eric Papenfuse said.
However, at the urging of state and local officials, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funded much of the sinkhole mitigation project, suppling the city with $1.65 million for it. Never before had FEMA approved a sinkhole project.
“This project changed national policy,” said Steve Ward, a FEMA federal coordinating officer who attended the ceremony.
An additional $4.55 million came from HUD’s Department of Community and Economic Development and Dauphin County’s Community Development Block Grant.
Using these funds, the city was able to buy all of the 53 affected units for their assessed market values. Residents were assisted in finding and purchasing new housing elsewhere. After a tedious, multi-year process, the buildings were demolished last April.
The site was excavated 10 feet deep, backfilled and regraded to help prevent future sinkholes caused by excessive rainfall, as copious rain from Tropical Storm Lee in 2011, passing through the porous ground in the area, likely caused the initial sinkhole outbreak. The area was zoned as a green space, meaning no future construction can occur there.
“This site will allow folks to reflect on local memories,” said Tom Hughes, state hazard mitigation officer for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA).
The new park includes a walking path, benches and newly planted trees. A permanent plaque will be installed to serve as a memorial to the neighborhood that once stood there.
Some neighbors do have concerns about how well the park will be taken care of.
“We know the community really appreciates it and because they appreciate it, they are going to treat it well,” said Rev. Roberta Thompson, associate pastor at Mount Olive Baptist Church nearby. “We do have some concerns about how we are going to keep it up.”
Papenfuse assured community members that the city will maintain the green space as it does other parks in the city.
Although devastating to those who lived there, the sinkhole project showed Ward the potential of city, state and national organizations uniting on a job that once seemed impossible.
“This is a perfect example of the community coming together and helping those families,” he said.
The South 14th Street Open Space is located on the 1400-block of S. 14th St., Harrisburg.