Flash flooding strands drivers, inundates neighborhoods
In homes and businesses throughout the South Hills and into the Mon Valley, rain-weary neighbors on Wednesday cleaned the mess left by flash floods and prepared for more storms.
Drenching rain inundated communities and prompted dramatic rescues from rooftops and cars. People living and working along Saw Mill Run, Streets Run, Chartiers Creek and Robinson Run said such storms are part of life.
“It's not our first rodeo,” Gary Schemm said as he lit a cigarette and sat down in the lobby of Ronnie's Tires on Route 51 in Overbrook as fellow employees power-washed mud from the garages and lot. Carpet cleaners were on their way, and Schemm expected to open on Thursday.
“Good ol' Saw Mill Creek,” he said.
The creek covered Route 51 for hours, a scene repeated in towns south and west of the Ohio and Monongahela rivers as up to 3 inches of rain fell quickly in the morning, and more dropped through the evening. Officials reported no serious injuries.
Possible tornadoes were reported as a late-afternoon line of storms spun through several communities and toppled trees across the region, leaving thousands of residents without electricity.
Many called it the worst flooding they experienced since the remnants of Hurricane Ivan dropped nearly 6 inches of rain on Western Pennsylvania nine days after Hurricane Frances left more than 3 inches in September 2004.
“Compared to Ivan, this isn't as bad,” Lea Lester said as people helped her and husband Jim set up pumps to get water out of their home on Clinton Avenue Extension in hard-hit Oakdale. “What was good about Ivan was you got to meet friends and neighbors, and you worked together to make it through.”
States of emergency
Oakdale and Elizabeth Borough were among 13 Allegheny County communities that declared emergencies.
Elizabeth Council President Monica Glowinski said flooding washed out Irwin Street, which she described as “the only access road for some of our residents.”
In Pittsburgh, the worst flooding happened along the Route 51 and Banksville Road corridors, which crews closed until about 3 p.m., and again after the evening rush.
Allegheny County swift-water rescue teams — which officials assembled after a flash flood in Highland Park killed four people stuck in cars on Washington Boulevard in 2011 — snatched at least seven people and two dogs from rising water, said Scott Deutsch, the county's assistant chief of emergency operations.
One person, whom Deutsch described as elderly, was hospitalized. He said the 911 center received 2,617 calls, double the typical 1,300.
As more warnings were issued before dinnertime, Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Michael Huss encouraged people to stay off roads.
“Tonight is the night to stay home and watch a movie,” Huss said. “It's very important people really take this seriously.”
Oakdale and Elizabeth set up shelters for people forced from their homes, and officials in Findlay and Shaler prepared shelters. The Salvation Army set up disaster command centers in Bridgeville and Jefferson Hills.
Port Authority closed part of its T service on the Library line, and officials said it might remain closed on Thursday morning because of debris and flooding on tracks. Allegheny County closed the Boyce Park Wave Pool, South Park Golf Course and Round Hill Park Spray Park.
“This was the worst I've seen in probably 20 years,” said Jay Slobodnyak, owner of Option Automotive on Streets Run Road in Baldwin Borough. “The guardrail is just hanging by the rail. Pretty regularly, we get a good rain, and you can be pretty sure that Streets Run is going to be closed.”
When water receded, mud-caked streets were visible in Oakdale's small downtown.
“I've never seen it like this before,” said Gena Lander, who lives a block from the business district. The flooding forced her to call off work.
“I can't move my car,” she said. “There's really nothing you can do. What are you going to do? I have flood insurance. We'll deal with it.”
Pat Conieczny, owner of nearby Thomas & Little Funeral Home, said water rose 2 feet in his basement.
“We had 25 feet of water in 2004 and $400,000 of damage. This is not that bad,” he said.
Robinson Run and a creek on the other side of town flooded to form what neighbors described as a lake after about 15 minutes of hard rain, Oakdale police Chief Jim Lauria said. It flooded two dozen homes.
Trying to keep his living room dry, Roy Locke opened screened windows in the basement of his Clinton Avenue home so water could flow through and out a storm shelter access door.
“It's my indoor pool,” Locke joked of the 8 feet of water that reached the rafters of the first floor. “I'd like to see them at least do some dredging (of Robinson Run). It might give us a fighting chance.”
Jim Ciamacco, owner of the 85-year-old Schmidt Tavern on Cliff Mine Road in Findlay, said there was 4 feet of water in the bar's basement.
“We lost food. The refrigerator and freezer were floating in all of the water,” he said.
The tavern is across the street from Montour Run and Montour Trail.
“That trail looks horrible. I wonder if they will be able to fix it,” he said.
‘Where's more water gonna go?'
Business owners and crews spent much of the afternoon trying to avoid more damage.
“We have sandbags ready for the next one,” said Julie Fish, cashier at Citgo Fueland convenience store on McNeilly Road in Baldwin Township.
The Pittsburgh Public Works Redd-Up crew assembled teams on Banksville Road to clear drains, spillways and creeks of debris.
“The next thing is to get the culverts cleared out, cut the (fallen) trees up with chain saws so it can all just wash through,” said foreman Ray Rogalsky.
Some people didn't plan to stick around.
Matt Maximovich pushed water out of his Oakdale front yard with a snow shovel. Despite his attempts to pump out his basement, water flooded the lower portion of his home, Maximovich said. He moved Christmas decorations and other items to higher ground.
“We're getting out of here,” Maximovich said. “I don't want to be here if the water comes up again. Where's more water gonna go?”
Trib Total Media staff writers Aaron Aupperlee, Chris Togneri, Pat Cloonan, Mike Wereschagin, Tom Fontaine, Matthew Santoni, Jim Wilhelm, Rick Wills and Bobby Cherry contributed to this report.