WEST PITTSTON, Pa.—Barry Hosier made concessions to the mighty Susquehanna River when he opened his barbecue restaurant two months ago.

His large, stainless-steel refrigerators are on wheels. The most important tool of his trade—a gigantic wood-fired smoker that can cook 1,000 pounds of meat at a time—sits on a trailer out back, ready to be hauled away at a moment's notice if the river that runs several hundred feet away overflows its banks.

They are important precautions because West Pittston, like many other communities up and down the Susquehanna, continues to be at the mercy of the flood-prone waterway.

A year after remnants of Tropical Storm Lee brought flooding to tens of thousands of Pennsylvania homes and businesses, renewed calls for flood protection have yielded to the political and economic reality that towns like West Pittston and Bloomsburg are likely to stay unprotected for years to come.

The nation's budget woes, a ban on congressional earmarks, a huge construction backlog, and stricter federal rules governing which projects qualify for funding all conspire against new floodwalls and levees.

"It's frustrating," said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. "We've got to remain committed to these folks and these communities because this is a wound that will take a long time to heal."

Coming on the heels of Hurricane Irene, Lee spread flooding rains across Pennsylvania, forcing the evacuation of 100,000 people from Harrisburg to Wilkes-Barre. The storm killed 12 and caused at least $333 million in damage, according to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

Especially hard hit was Bloomsburg, a central Pennsylvania college town of 15,000 that endured the worst flooding in its history. Bloomsburg is perpetually vulnerable, having flooded most recently in 2004, 2005 and 2006, and residents and businesses have long clamored for the same kind of protection that other communities along the Susquehanna enjoy.

A floodwall to shield the west end of town—the location of 300 homes, two major manufacturers and the venerable Bloomsburg Fair—had been in the works for years. After Lee, local officials pressured the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to move more quickly.

Instead, the Corps scuttled the $70 million project this summer.

"We are still recovering from the shock," said Ed Edwards, chairman of the Bloomsburg Area Joint Flood Control Authority. "We have invested a million dollars in 15 years of activity with the Corps of Engineers that is now wasted. We feel a little bit like we've been led down a primrose path with the Corps, thinking we were continuing to make progress toward a solution. But we are no better off than we were 15 years ago, 25 years ago, 40 years ago."

The Corps said the proposed floodwall no longer met stricter cost-benefit guidelines for a project to be included in the president's budget, and that its cost had risen beyond what Congress had originally authorized.

"The latest data analysis simply did not support the authorized Bloomsburg levee project, leading us to make the hard and difficult decision to recommend against" it, said Corps spokesman Chris Augsburger.

The Corps has been operating under severe fiscal constraints for years. While Congress has authorized new Corps projects at a rate of $3 billion per year, it's only appropriated $1.8 billion a year for construction, a December report by the Congressional Research Service found. And a Republican-imposed ban on earmarks—the oft-criticized practice of steering money to lawmakers' home-state pet projects—eliminated about $500 million annually from the Corps' budget, the report said. The agency faces a construction backlog of more than $62 billion.

Levees are not the right solution for every town, said Amy Guise, planning chief for the Corps' Baltimore District.

"Sometimes, moving out of the flood plain or flood-proofing has a longer-term benefit," she said. 

Since Lee and Irene, nearly 500 Pennsylvania homes have been deemed "significantly damaged" and placed in a buyout program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

West Pittston's challenges stem from more than a lack of flood protection.

The borough of 4,800, situated along a bend in the Susquehanna about halfway between Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, faces the possibility of getting kicked out of the national flood insurance program in part because some flooded-out residents neglected to get building permits, or raise electrical boxes and heating systems as required under strict codes that govern flood-plain construction and remodeling, said borough manager Savino Bonita.

FEMA has given West Pittston a Dec. 1 deadline to comply with the rules, after which the borough will be put on probation, triggering a $50 surcharge on each homeowner's flood policy. Eventually, the borough could be suspended from the program altogether, making federal flood insurance unavailable and rendering West Pittston ineligible for future federal disaster aid.

The borough's flood-damaged homes and businesses are in various states of repair: Some have been completely remodeled, while others have yet to be touched. A restaurant and gas station have reopened, but a bank was demolished and a Presbyterian church remains shuttered.

"I have six empty houses next to me," Hosier said of his own home. "I live in the blight."

A retired police officer with a flair for beef brisket, pulled pork and baby-back ribs, he has opened a restaurant that has drawn raves and a steady clientele—a success story in a community that is slowly, haltingly making its way back.

"I could've put it somewhere else. But I took some action, took a chance," he said.

West Pittston resident Carol Revert, whose husband pumped their basement for 36 hours to keep out the water, said residents are resigned to life without a levee. The town failed to meet the Corps' cost-benefit threshold two decades ago, and borough officials say it would be even more difficult now.

Revert, 50, teared up as she described the pain of the last year.

"I grew up in this town. I'm still devastated," she said. "I'm still sad for the people who are still out of their homes."