Flooding the biggest problem from 'superstorm' Sandy in Western Pa.
By Jennifer Reeger and Rossilynne Skena
Published: Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
In Western Pennsylvania, the wrath of superstorm Sandy was felt most in eastern Westmoreland County, where more than 30 people were pulled to safety from swirling floodwaters that surrounded their homes and vehicles, officials said Tuesday.
Charlene “Charley” Hvasta watched intently as water from Mill Creek inched closer to the back door of her Ligonier apartment on Monday night.
“I was praying. I had my cross,” said Hvasta, who worried about leaving behind her cat, Rascal, as the rain and wind swept in. “All of a sudden I was standing in 2 to 3 inches of water.”
Then, in the moment it took her to call 911 for help, more than 2 feet of water flooded Indian Street near her building.
Firefighters in a boat rescued her, but Rascal stayed behind.
“I go to get in this life raft, and it's wet with snow ... cold as hell,” Hvasta said on Tuesday, standing on her apartment's water-logged carpet and reunited with Rascal. “It was better than being trapped in here all night.”
Throughout the night, crews rescued people from their homes and vehicles, mostly around Ligonier and Latrobe, as remnants of the hurricane swelled streams.
Flooding — not the predicted power outages — was the primary problem in the region.
“For Pennsylvania, it was probably not as bad as it could have been,” Gov. Tom Corbett said.
The deaths of five people — most of them in eastern Pennsylvania — were blamed on the storm that left more than 1 million utility customers in the state without power, Corbett said.
“We are breathing more of a sigh of relief,” he said. “We'll be breathing more of a sigh of relief when power is restored.”
Hills and mountains spared Western Pennsylvania from strong gusts, and the storm weakened as it churned inland, said National Weather Service meteorologist Rihaan Gangat.
Wind gusts reached 46 mph at Pittsburgh International Airport, officials said.
The weather service reported 2.67 inches of rain fell between 12:01 a.m. Monday and 8 p.m. Tuesday at the National Weather Service station in Moon. Greensburg had 3.9 inches; 3.26 inches fell in Bridgeville and 3.25 inches near Punxsutawney. There was snow in the Laurel Highlands with 6 inches in Stahlstown, 8.8 inches in Farmington and at least two inches in Uniontown.
Rain will continue into Wednesday, Gangat said.
“It's winding down a lot,” he said.
The only local fatality was in Somerset County, where a woman died when the vehicle in which she was riding slid on a slush-covered road in Upper Turkeyfoot and plunged into a pond Monday night.
The driver, Abigail O'Connor, 51, of Confluence, was able to free herself but unable to save her passenger, Alice Hynes, 81, of Williamstown, Mass.
Exhausted firefighters responded to call after call in the Ligonier area.
“We did 18 physical rescues,” Ligonier Volunteer Hose Company No. 1 Chief Paul Church said. “We didn't do much water pumping (Monday) night because water was still coming up.”
Five Ligonier residents were rescued by boat, and the others were able to walk out of their homes with firefighters' assistance. They were taken to the Ligonier Valley YMCA or stayed with family and friends.
Others had to be rescued from homes in Ligonier Township and Latrobe.
“I think this (flooding) is excessive compared to what we're used to in an average storm, but it could be worse,” said Ligonier Township Supervisor Tim Komar.
In Allegheny County
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said no streams topped their banks.
That was welcome news to residents of Millvale, including Stan Greygor, 51, who took the day off from work, moved valuables out of his basement and parked his truck on higher ground.
“I think we're out of harm's way,” Greygor said. “The creek isn't half of what I thought it would be. I've had no problems at all.”
Rivers rose as the day progressed.
A dock at McKees Point Marina in McKeesport broke loose from its moorings and threatened to take out several others, a marina employee said.
“The current is so strong, we can't even step on the docks to do anything,” said Candie Deemer, 30, a cook at the marina's cafe.
At Point State Park, the rivers were expected to crest at 19.5 feet at 2 a.m. Flood stage is 25 feet but the Mon Parking Wharf floods at 18 feet, Gangat said.
The Youghiogheny River crested below flood stage in Connellsville and Sutersville and appeared to crest below flood stage at West Newton.
“It's a little bit unpredictable,” said West Newton Mayor Mary Popovich. “It's slowed down, but we're still watching it.”
Snow in the mountains
Sandy dumped slushy, wet snow in the higher elevations.
But local ski slopes, including those at Seven Springs Mountain Resort and Hidden Valley Resort, remain closed this week.
“It's heavy, wet and sloppy, what we refer to as good ‘snowman' snow. It's not good for skiing,” Seven Springs spokeswoman Anna Weltz said.
Throughout the region, people were ready for the worst.
In the mountainous areas, they filled bathtubs and buckets with well water.
“All we did was prepare for the forecast — get the flashlights, drew water,” said Lanny Ulery, 70, of Donegal.
With much of the state spared, Corbett said Pennsylvania is sending 35 ambulances and an oversized “mass casualty” bus to help in New Jersey. The bus can be used for large numbers of evacuees, Corbett said. The state is designating West Chester and East Stroudsburg universities as shelters for storm victims from New Jersey and New York.
Pennsylvania's 78-member search and rescue team is going to New Jersey, said PEMA Director Glenn Cannon.
On the other hand, about 2,500 power company workers from other states are helping local crews, especially those in eastern Pennsylvania where most of the loss of service occurred.
“We're not looking at 24-hour (restoration),” Public Utility Commission Chairman Rob Paulson said.
It may be early next week before a preliminary assessment of the storm damage can be completed, Corbett said.
President Obama signed a federal disaster declaration on Monday for the commonwealth that would make some residents eligible for disaster aid.
Westmoreland County officials said it could be a while before all of the 27 roads that were closed by flooding reopen.
“We haven't seen the water recede; in fact, we've seen it rise some more,” said Dan Stevens, spokesman for the county Department of Emergency Management.
Staff writers Brad Bumsted, Amanda Dolasinski, Stacey Federoff, Tom Fontaine, Margaret Harding, Bobby Kerlik, Michael Hasch, Jewels Phraner and Mary Pickels contributed to this story. Jennifer Reeger and Rossilynne Skena are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Reeger can be reached at 724-836-6155 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Skena can be reached at 724-836-6646 or email@example.com.
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