Dauphin County commissioners moves closer to supplying sinkhole relief

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HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Residents along one Harrisburg neighborhood block could see up to $5 million in county and federal relief money in the coming years, if engineers are able to prove sinkholes which appeared in 2014 are directly linked to Tropical Storm Lee and Hurricane Irene.

Dauphin County commissioners on Wednesday approved a $22,500 contract to hire engineering firm Gannett Fleming. The county expects the engineers to be able to make the connection between sinkholes on the 1400 block of South 14th Street and the storms, which is required in order for the county to award the grant money to the City of Harrisburg. Once Gannett Fleming finishes its study, Dauphin County will be able to give the city $1 million in grant money, which the city is then expected to use as leverage to acquire between $3 million and $5 million in additional grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

County officials expect Gannett Fleming's study to take two to three months, followed by an environmental review process which should take "three to five months" before they are able to give the city money.

“We understand that residents on South 14th Street have suffered great financial and emotional stress and this board is committed to providing relief and a long-term solution,’’ Commissioner George Hartwick said. “Today’s action is the first step toward getting the residents the help they need.’’

South 14th Street in Harrisburg remains closed to traffic after sinkholes appeared in March 2014.

South 14th Street in Harrisburg remains closed to traffic after sinkholes appeared in March 2014.

Multiple sinkholes appeared on S. 14th Street in March 2014, swallowing up one front lawn and eating up a section of the street. A handful of residents have already been forced to move, and at least 27 more homes in the center of the 1400 block will be demolished once grant money is rewarded, according to the city's plans. While the sinkholes no longer exist on the street, the block remains closed as a safety precaution, and many homes still show signs of the sinkhole damage from 16 months earlier.

"There's a hole there, and another hole there," resident Wilbert Powell showed Fox43. "It's all been sinking a little bit, but no sinkholes since (March 2014)."

FEMA is expected to demolish the homes within the next 12 months, according to Dauphin County Deputy Director of Community and Economic Development George Connor.

"That particular area was a landfill years ago, so the area could potentially be contaminated," Connor said. "The ground will be turned into open space. There will not be anything else developed there."

It is estimated that fixing the sinkholes and relocating residents could cost the city between $3 million and $5 million.