Flooding in unlikely places
Jess Williams will never forget the sound of generators, refrigerators and countless fragments of her disintegrating home crashing into each other just beneath her feet amid undulating waves in the basement of her flooded house.
Exactly five years to the day since Williams, 33, and her husband, Clint, 42, moved into their Elizabeth Township home — wedged between Boston Hollow Road and what was once a shallow runoff creek at the base of a large hillside — a series of devastating mid-July deluges washed away nearly everything they had built.
“I feel crushed,” said Williams. “When we moved in, the creek had only about a quarter-inch of water in it about six feet down. But (by July 18), the creek was filled with five feet of debris, our yard was completely washed away and we had stagnant water to the top of our garage roof and up 15 stairs to our basement door.”
Williams said investigators told them the damage was the result of a massive backup in a sewage drain along Route 48, which also cut a sinkhole into a neighboring yard.
“We didn't have any flood insurance,” said Williams. “We were told we weren't in a flood zone.”
But after a month saturated by relentless rainfall, many like Williams are realizing the hard way that much of the Mon-Yough and South Hills regions — even areas farther from water sources — are in potential flood zones.
Steve Raczkowski, public works manager of Elizabeth Township, believes the threat can be summed up in one word: drainage.
“All through the area, you have very steep hillsides and streambeds with steep walls,” he said. “When we get the kind of rain we got in July, there's just too much water for the streams, rivers and sewers to hold, and all of it has to go somewhere.”
The problem is exacerbated by the region's weather patterns, according to John W. Schombert, executive director of 3 Rivers Wet Weather — a nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to addressing the sewer overflow problem in Allegheny County.
“We get just about the same amount of rainfall as wet cities out west like Seattle and Portland — upwards of about 35 to 40 inches each year,” said Schombert. “But we get that rain very differently. Those places tend to get a day of misty rain in the summer, but we have the tendency for high intensity, shorter duration storms and microbursts. Storms here can be very localized over individual neighborhoods and extremely unpredictable.”
That was certainly the case in and around the Mon Valley last month. National Weather Service meteorologist Lee Hendricks said the rainfall in July bordered on tropical conditions.
“A normal summer rainfall here is usually about an inch an hour,” said Hendricks. “Two inches in an hour would be extreme. But we had certain places around the South Hills getting an inch of rain in just 15 or 20 minutes.”
Schombert said local topography plays a significant role in flooding.
“We have very unique geographic conditions here,” he said. “Philadelphia was recently in the news for receiving 5 inches of rain over a day. But because it's flat there, there was less threat of flood because the water doesn't aggregate into valleys with increased volume and flow like we see here. Since water picks up energy when it goes downhill — and there are hills everywhere around here — cars and large debris can be washed away and clog already overwhelmed waterways.”
But Mother Nature isn't entirely to blame.
“A lot of flooding is done by man,” said Schombert. “So much of the area is paved and so many streams are now in pipes. Pavement makes a high percentage of our region impermeable to water, and streams — even contained in pipes — naturally want to get out of their banks and release energy by flooding a valley. In essence, through development, we've increased the amount of water runoff for ourselves.”
However, Nancy Barylak, spokeswoman for the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, said storm water overflow will always be a problem no matter the location.
“You can never build a sewer system here in Pittsburgh or anywhere else in the country big enough to handle floods,” she said. “The McKeesport wastewater treatment plant can handle about 10 million gallons of water per day — which is a lot. But you just can never design a system to completely solve the problem.”
Although ALCOSAN provides wastewater treatment to the county's 83 municipalities, Barylak said each borough and township owns and maintains their own sewer lines.
“It will always come down to money,” she said. “In this day and age, the state and federal governments don't really have the money to hand out for flood control projects. You really have to fight for that money, and it comes down to which communities have the political pull and can pay for systems that will only do so much.”
In 2011, the Municipal Authority of the City of McKeesport received nearly $37 million in state funding for an extensive sewer expansion program, but superintendent Chuck Schultz said even after the project is complete in two years, it won't do much to prevent potential flooding.
“The Department of Environmental Protection required us to eliminate at least 85 percent of combined storm and sanitary sewer overflow,” said Schultz. “We were originally trying to see if we could eliminate having our sewer and stormwater systems together, but the cost and time for that wouldn't be feasible.”
Instead, the municipal authority will continue to dedicate a crew to clean up sticks and debris that tend to clog up lines during major rain events.
Barylak said the best precaution Mon Valley residents can take to protect themselves from future floods is to do the same before it's too late.
“After a flood, you'll always see tires, bricks and other garbage remaining,” said Barylak. “That debris creates a dam-like experience, which causes water to flow wherever it can. The best thing anyone can do to prevent things like this from happening is to not use storm drains as garbage cans and to secure anything that could be swept away whenever you see a storm coming.”
For evidence that debris contributes to devastating floods, one needs only to look at the messy remains of Jess Williams' backyard.
“We ended up with so much debris that came from dumped materials at the top of the hill,” said Williams. “There was pile after pile of glass and garbage that had clogged the drainage tubes.”
But for Williams and countless others in the region, the focus now is less on looking back as it is moving forward.
“There's no dollar amount to put on what we lost,” said Williams. “We're just trying to make as many adjustments as we can so this doesn't happen to us again. All we can do is replace the most important things one piece at a time.”
Tim Karan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1970, or firstname.lastname@example.org.