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New Bethlehem to mark recovery from '96 disaster

| Monday, March 21, 2011

NEW BETHLEHEM (Clarion County) -- A monument of steel and granite stands as a silent reminder of the raging floodwaters that swept through this small town 15 years ago.

The steel is part of a beam of the old bridge that crossed the stream, and the monument depicts the old bridge that carried Route 28/66 over Redbank Creek between South Bethlehem, Armstrong County, and New Bethlehem, Clarion County, along with a rainbow to symbolize the spirit of the people of Redbank Valley.

Those traveling through the town today would have little idea how extensive the damage was and how much of the downtown area was underwater on July 19, 1996, but those who lived through it remember it like it was yesterday.

The Redbank Renaissance Inc. community revitalization group will hold a commemorative event Friday to showcase the disaster in photographs and film and to remember the day the town was changed forever.

Sandy Mateer, chairwoman of the group, said that along with looking back at the flood, the group plans a presentation that will showcase improvements made throughout the town in the years since the flood.

"It's meant to be an inspirational evening to show how progress can be made out of difficulties and to focus on the positive changes in our area," she said. "We hope to show people that tragedy can have lasting effects, but it doesn't mean that we have to be stymied by it and that we can move on and grow from it."

Heavy rains over a period of several days before July 19 led to flooding upstream of New Bethlehem in areas such as Brookville and Summerville. An earthen dam on a reservoir near Brookville gave way, allowing an undetermined amount of water to flow downstream and cover much of New Bethlehem's business district.

According to National Weather Service records, the water-level gauge at St. Charles, just downstream of New Bethlehem, shows that water levels on Redbank Creek reached 23.9 feet on July 19, 1996. Flood stage for that spot is 17 feet, meaning the stream rose nearly seven feet over flood stage.

By comparison, the next highest level recorded at St. Charles was the St. Patrick's Day flood in March 1936 when water levels reached 18.6 feet, less than two feet over flood stage and five feet lower than the 1996 flood.

The storm even produced a tornado in nearby Mayport, according to accounts.

Mateer's brother-in-law, a local firefighter, recalled that the fire department had been called early that morning to assist with flood conditions in Brookville, but firefighters were unable to respond as they knew that conditions would soon worsen in New Bethlehem.

Firefighters spent the morning evacuating as many residents and business owners as possible to help alleviate the potential for necessary rescues or drownings. There were no deaths associated with the flood.

Mateer noted that several houses, businesses and Scout Hall along Water Street were lost as floodwaters rose. The water reached Broad Street, as well as Lafayette Street, Liberty Street and Hunter Way.

Some of the businesses damaged by the flood were Red Bank Chevy, Skinners Garage (now known as Gumtown Garage), the New Bethlehem Bank branch, Shirey Overhead Doors, the A Plus Gas Station and Key Beverage.

Mateer said some of the homes and businesses, including Scout Hall, were never rebuilt. Redbank Valley High School, which sits alongside the stream, also sustained major damage as floodwaters inundated much of the building.

Mateer said a video shows school workers who stayed inside the building to successfully put books, equipment and supplies on higher shelves and were eventually rescued from the roof by helicopter. Some of the helicopter rescue will be shown in a video of the flood.

"We want people to bring their photos and videos of the flood to the event so that we can show just how truly devastating it was," Mateer said. "We hope that we can look back on the event and see how truly blessed we are to have been able to rebound from it."

Six years after the flood, the town suffered another setback when fire destroyed several businesses on Broad Street in April 2002. The buildings housed some businesses, many of which sustained heavy damage from the conflagration.

The flood commemoration event will be held at 5:30 p.m. Friday in the First Church of God, 418 Brian Lane, off Route 861.

A short presentation will outline continued plans for the Redbank Valley Trails, a rails-to-trails project that follows Redbank Creek from the Allegheny River through New Bethlehem and Brookville. The trail will connect to the Armstrong Trail, which runs from East Brady south through Kittanning and Ford City.

"It will offer great recreational opportunities and many economic opportunities for existing and new businesses," Mateer said.

If you're going

Redbank Renaissance Inc. will hold a 15th anniversary flood commemoration service at 5:30 p.m. Friday at the First Church of God, 418 Brian Lane off Route 861. For more information, visit Redbank Renaissance, Inc., here and on the trails here . People with photos they would like to share and display are asked to call 814-275-1718 to make arrangements for free table space. Food will be available for a free will donation.

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