Watch CBS News

Philadelphia neighborhood faces floods, tough choices as climate crisis hits "Planet Streets"

Philadelphia neighborhood faces floods, tough choices as climate crisis hits "Planet Streets"
Philadelphia neighborhood faces floods, tough choices as climate crisis hits "Planet Streets" 06:36

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Along the banks of Cobbs Creek in Southwest Philadelphia's Eastwick neighborhood is an area known as the "Planet Streets."

With street names like Mercury, Mars and Saturn Place, this majority-Black neighborhood is a microcosm of the decisions communities on planet Earth will face because of climate change.

For Eastwick, one of those decisions might be whether homeowners become the first in Philadelphia to move out of their homes entirely because of climate change.

Brenda Whitfield, who moved to Eastwick in the 1970s, is the block captain of Saturn Place.

"It was just sunshine," Whitfield recalled. "A breath of fresh air and sunshine when I came into the neighborhood."

But she said that sunshine didn't last.

"And the sunshine went to rain," Whitfield said. "When the sunshine went to rain, it was downhill all the way."

It began with Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the first of six storms in 24 years to flood her home.

"The water always covers my washer and dryer," Whitfield said. "The last flood, if you can go up these steps, the water came up as high as the third one from the top."

The heavy rain brought a flood of questions.

"We didn't know what was going on," Whitfield said. "So then, we started learning."

Earl Wilson of the Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition said one area neighbors learned the flooding originated from is Cobbs Creek.

"It looks so calm at this point," Wilson said. "But you also have to remember that when certain factors are working in unison, it's not so calm at that point in time."

Drexel University professor Franco Montalto said those factors start with water from higher elevations upstream flowing down the creek.

"When all that water comes down those creeks, the creeks can overflow their banks," Montalto said. "When they overflow their banks, it floods this low-lying community."

Downstream, Cobbs Creek eventually converges with Darby Creek before flowing into the Delaware River.

If there's a high tide or storm surge from a hurricane, it can push the water back up into Eastwick.

"This particular community is sort of susceptible to flooding from both upstream and downstream," Montalto said.

Sea level rise could make Eastwick even more susceptible to flooding.

Emissions from cars and factories are changing the climate by trapping in the heat and making the planet warmer, which melts glaciers, and causes water around the world to rise.

Montalto said Cobbs Creek could rise about four feet.

To solve Eastwick's flooding issues, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is looking at potentially building a levee, an earthen embankment, along Cobbs Creek, but with sea level rise, Montalto said a levee only addresses part of the problem.

"It's less clear to me that the levee will be able to protect Eastwick from long-term changes in sea levels," Montalto said.

The other possible solution is managed retreat, where the government buys out homeowners who then move to parts of the neighborhood at a higher elevation.

The government will then tear down the homes, creating open green space to absorb flooding.

Liz Lankenau, the director of the Philadelphia Office of Sustainability, said part of the challenge is how Eastwick's homes are designed.

"The houses are all attached," Lankenau said. "Buyouts, if some people want to be bought out and others do not, that affects community cohesion."

Wilson said homeowners don't want to take any options off the table, but they have mixed feelings about managed retreat.

"A lot of the residents have indicated in surveys that we've taken that they like the area," Wilson said. "[They] don't really want to move."

Whitfield said there's another complicating factor tied to this community's history: trust.

"What type of land is it? Is it safe for us to be on?" Whitfield said. "We need to know that we're safe and that this would be a good investment for the residents out here."

But it's more than just investing money for Eastwick's residents. It's investing in memories and a legacy.

One of Whitfield's favorite memories is when the postman would come to her house.

"He [was] like, 'This street is great, but these steps are a killer!'" Whitfield recalled. "As you can see, the steps in Eastwick are steps like you never had."

The steps to solve Eastwick's flooding problem are just as steep of a climb, but Whitfield said she'll always be looking for the sunshine.

"When the rain comes, yes, there is anxiety," Whitfield said. "But when I don't get flooded, and I wake up the next day, and I see the sunshine, I still have faith and I still hope."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.