Western Pennsylvania learned after being battered by past storms, hurricanes
As meteorologist Shannon Hefferan tracked the progress of Hurricane Florence late last week on a computer screens inside the National Weather Service office in Moon, James Bargerstock recalled the havoc hurricanes can unleash more than 350 miles from the nearest coast.
Bargerstock can’t forget the day in 2004 when remnants of Hurricane Ivan dumped nearly 6 inches of rain on Southwestern Pennsylvania. The storm turned placid Bull Creek into a raging torrent that quickly surrounded his Tarentum home, turning his 14-foot-high deck into a dock for volunteer firefighters manning boats that ferried his family to safety.
“That was a bad memory,” said the 56-year-old father of two. “For a long time after that, you’d wake up in the middle of the night sweating.”
The Bargerstocks have relocated to higher ground in nearby Harrison. They were among hundreds of families across the region displaced by flood waters that killed one man and caused nearly $300 million in damages as water swept through low-lying areas after a record 5.87 inches of rain fell at Pittsburgh International Airport on Sept. 17, 2004.
Storms that spawn multiple inches of rain across the region — such as the dregs of Tropical Storm Gordon did this month— are less deadly today thanks in part to lessons taken away from past storms and floods.
Remnants of Gordon dropped more than 8 inches of rain on parts of Westmoreland County, but no lives were lost.
A single flood-control dam on the Conemaugh River — one of a series built in the aftermath of the disastrous St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936 — held back enough water from last week’s downpour to cover Pittsburgh five feet deep, officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said . Another of those dams — on the Youghiogheny River— reduced the severity of flooding in Sutersville, sparing homeowners there an additional 2 feet of flood water when the river spiked at a 20-year high, they said.
Like the deadly 1936 flood, floods that swamped the region in the wake of Hurricane Ivan triggered a series of projects designed to mitigate the impact of wild weather. In the 14 years since Ivan, creeks were dredged, stream walls shored up, bridges replaced, levees built, some streams rerouted, wetlands built, catch basins installed and, in some instances, homes in flood plains were demolished.
Communities that saw an investment of millions of dollars in new flood-control projects in the aftermath of Ivan — some of which had been proposed decades earlier — included Export, Lower Burrell, Jeannette, Tarentum, McKeesport, Shaler, Millvale, Carnegie, Etna and Oakdale.
Back in the Alle-Kiski Valley, Bargerstock saw it as too little, too late when officials finally dredged Bull Creek and removed trees after the flood.
“I don’t think they did enough,” he said.
Although the improvements have had an impact, Allegheny County Emergency Services Chief Matt Brown said flood-prone areas continue to be at risk thanks to the region’s steep topography and challenges from construction and development that can change the flow of water and run-off.
“It’s culmination of all those things,” Brown said.
When Ivan hit, officials were already building on the lessons of Hurricane Agnes, a monster storm that stalled over Pennsylvania in June 1972. It dumped more than 8 inches of rain on the Pittsburgh region, swelling the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers more than 10 feet above flood stages.
Residents of New Kensington and Monessen evacuated as rivers overflowed on June 25, according to newspaper archives.
Central Pennsylvania saw extensive damage, with the governor’s mansion swamped by rising water from the Susquehanna. Farther to the northeast, nearly 20 inches of rain dumped on some towns and a levee failed in Wilkes-Barre.
Across Pennsylvania, 50 people died in the storm, including a Ligonier Township supervisor who had a heart attack while clearing a water line.
Statewide, Agnes left 220,000 people homeless and more than $3 billion in damages.
And it left communities preparing for the next storm.
In south central Westmoreland County, Agnes was the impetus for projects built over the next 20 years — the Bridgeport Dam along Jacobs Creek and the Scottdale Channel, both completed in the early 1990s, as well as a series of rain gardens and wetlands that benefited the Mt. Pleasant and Scottdale areas.
“There were a lot of improvements on that stream,” said Jerry Lucia, Mount Pleasant’s longtime mayor and fire chief. “I remember when it used to flood the whole way down to Everson and Scottdale.”
National Weather Service records suggest the region has held up fairly well despite being battered by the remnants of 43 hurricanes and 16 tropical storm systems over the last 142 years.
As meteorologists in Moon scoured computer data and launched weather balloons Thursday to check for hints of change in the upper atmosphere, Hefferan was optimistic that the region would easily ride out the impact of Florence’s remnants, which are expected to dump up to 2 inches of rain on the region.
“We should be able to take it,” she said.
Staff writer Bob Bauder contributed to this report. Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 412-320-7996, [email protected] or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.