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Flooding adds insult to city's self-injury

| Thursday, Sept. 23, 2004

Troubles have landed in a bunch on Pittsburgh. And the net effect, in economic terms, can't help but hurt confidence.

In the public sector, there is the city's infamous "distressed" status. The state essentially has had to take over financial management of a disgraced, people-losing city.

The private sector chipped in with bankruptcy at one the region's largest private employers, US Airways, carrier of 7,700 local jobs.

Even the natural sector didn't hold back. It delivered ruinous flooding in the last vandalisms of Hurricane Ivan. The darkness was not unrelieved. In human terms, the storm brought out the best in neighbors, public servants and volunteers. Rescue and cleanup work spurred countless good deeds and renewals of faith in people.

But as a place to invest• Well, let's say Pittsburgh hasn't gained any points of late.

Hundreds of millions will have to be spent, and ought to be, in public aid and insurance to restore people to their homes. Some businesses will spring back on the devastated shopping streets of Carnegie, Millvale and Etna; yet not all will return. Inevitably, some owners will be close to retirement anyway or too disheartened to start over. And alongside every decision will hover the nagging question: Is it wise• Does it make sense to rebuild where floods have raged past, bearing roofs, furniture, trees, torn-loose boats, dead animals and filth•

Sure, something like this happens maybe twice a century. And Pittsburgh's major rivers are tamed to an extent with flood-control dams. But we've got all these creeks and "runs." They trickle 99 percent of the time, but let the heavens open with sufficient incontinence and they funnel, they rise and destroy.

Modern developments also have paved some natural watersheds. Sprawl exacts a price. The region's storm sewers have never been equal to the worst runoffs. It's no secret that billions must go into our underground plumbing. "Rivers" along the curbs and raw sewage intolerably flow together into the major rivers. The days are numbered (but the dollars not budgeted) to end that revolting situation. But will new industry want to come in to such an open-ended challenge•

The private and public sectors at present also are not exactly in a promotional phase.

US Airways' bankruptcy, until resolved, poses a threat of unemployed families, homes lost, pensions cut and more out-migration of people in their earning years. Tough labor relations, Pittsburgh's traditional black eye, had a role in the US Airways debacle. Were the unions too unyielding or management too greedy and inept, as so many workers bitterly believe• And do you care to enter such a smartingly hurt labor market to find out, Mr. New Industrial Prospect• Or is it safer to locate somewhere else• Especially since the city's distressed status means more uncertainties in taxation, public debt and contract bargaining with municipal unions•

Put it all together and it's been a punishing season for optimism in Pittsburgh.

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