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Feds should step up

| Sunday, June 3, 2018, 8:47 p.m.
Construction crews in late May showed the progress they'd made on a retaining wall designed to prevent another landslide from damaging Route 30 in East Pittsburgh.
Theresa Clift | Tribune-Review
Construction crews in late May showed the progress they'd made on a retaining wall designed to prevent another landslide from damaging Route 30 in East Pittsburgh.

PennDOT contractors have been making tremendous headway in repairing a landslide along Route 30 in East Pittsburgh, and we hope state and federal disaster officials come through in equally fine fashion to help pay for the region's many landslides.

A landslide April 7 collapsed three lanes of Route 30. It damaged two apartment buildings and a house so badly they had to be razed.

That landslide was just one of dozens that occurred as the result of an onslaught of rain over two months. As of early May, Allegheny County alone tallied $21 million in damage to public property.

Westmoreland County is still working on its tally. The Westmoreland County commissioners on Wednesday issued a disaster declaration in an attempt to get state and federal help.

PennDOT District 11 Executive Cheryl Moon-Sirianni called installation of a row of steel beams and other work that will rebuild the Route 30 retaining wall in just three weeks “utterly amazing if any of you have ever worked in the construction world.”

It sounds like it to us.

Construction crews had been working seven days a week for a time.

An Ellwood City steel fabricator shut down its business for several days to concentrate on constructing the project's specialized steel beams, then shipped them to Columbus, Ohio, to be galvanized.

“This isn't normal,” said Chuck Niederriter, COO of North Fayette's Golden Triangle Construction. “Everybody broke their back to get this thing done.”

Officials hope to reopen the road by early July and get the nine displaced residents back home.

That would be a relief to the thousands of motorists who drive that stretch each day, and the effort put forth is commendable.

Now, how to pay for it all.

We hope that attempts to get state and federal help to pay for the landslide damage are as determined and successful.

Moon-Sirianni and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said they expect to hear whether any federal funding will be received in the coming months. County and state officials have been tallying the damage in an effort to obtain federal money to repair damaged roads, bridges and other infrastructure in 31 municipalities, among them Pittsburgh and Harmar.

In Westmoreland, state and federal emergency management officials toured North and South Huntingdon and Rostraver townships. The damage in just those areas is estimated at about $1.4 million — a figure that makes Westmoreland eligible for federal help. And there are other municipalities sure to be added to the list — Upper Burrell and Jeannette among them.

But there's no assurance that any federal money is coming.

Officials in Westmoreland and Allegheny counties want the Federal Emergency Management Agency to declare a disaster — but only state emergency management officials can make such request of the feds.

The counties are collecting information to convince FEMA that landslides over a 10-week period should be grouped together as one incident caused by a single weather event — record-breaking levels of precipitation. Almost 10 inches of rain from Feb. 14 to April 4. FEMA says the National Weather Service makes such a determination.

The feds have denied disaster aid before. They rejected a request to help just last year following a crippling two-day snowstorm that March in the north east.

Allegheny County officials are hopeful, although it's never received FEMA funding for landslides. It received federal funds after tornados and flooding in 2013, and after Tropical Depression Ivan in 2004.

“The federal government has seen these before; we just have to do our part to convince them that is the case,” said Matt Brown, Allegheny County's chief of emergency services.

Bud Mertz, Westmoreland's public safety director, says, “There's no other help for (municipalities) with the exception of having federal assistance.”

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