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Westmoreland officials assess damage while residents salvage what they can

| Saturday, April 28, 2012, 3:09 a.m.

Teams from the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and Westmoreland County fanned out across flood-devastated areas Friday assessing damage from storms Wednesday night that turned meandering streams into raging rivers of destruction.

Meanwhile, municipal officials assessed where to put their resources to help residents in the clean-up and awaited word on what disaster aid may be available.

Weary, mud-splattered residents spent the day shoveling muck from their homes and filling Dumpsters stationed around their neighborhoods to collect water-logged trash. People inspected personal items one by one to determine which were worth saving.

In Grapeville, a front-end loader sent in by Hempfield Township scooped discarded household items and other debris churned up by the flooding along Brush Creek.

Export Mayor Robert Campagna said water from Turtle Creek swept away part of a rail line used by the Turtle Creek Industrial Railroad, a division of Dura-Bond Fabrication that also sustained heavy damage. The water washed away 5 feet of the embankment the tracks rested on. He said Dura-Bond employs more than 100 people.

"I've never seen water come up this fast," he said. "We haven't seen a flood this high since the '60s."

Barbara Latherow, who lives along the creek, shoveled mud yesterday with two trash bins stationed in front of her home. She lost five motorcycles and all her kitchen appliances. The kitchen's hardwood floor was ruined.

She was still trying to recover from a flash flood that swept through Export two years ago.

"I needed a new kitchen floor from the last flood," she said.

Latherow showed signs of fatigue and frustration.

"I was up for 30 hours, and I just couldn't go anymore," she said. "I would like to be optimistic, but I can't be optimistic. For us, this is a disaster. But the government doesn't think it's a disaster."

Campagna said the state has promised Export a flood-control project for the past 13 years. Yesterday, an engineer from the Department of Environmental Protection couldn't say when the project would begin. That answer wasn't good enough for Latherow.

"I've heard the story for so many years. We're going to get this creek project going. We're going to get this creek project going. Let those bureaucrats get off their ass and get down here and do some hard work. We've lost and we've lost and we've lost. We're ready to move."

Greg Zimmerman, director of the Hempfield Emergency Management Agency, said 150 homes in the township were damaged, as well as the Hannastown and Fort Allen fire departments.

"I don't think there's a bit of the township that wasn't hit by the storm," he said.


Jeannette Fire Chief Mike Bertolino said the city is still trying to assess the extent of the damage.

"It's bad," he said.

Bertolino said 100 homes, 20 to 25 businesses, and four or five churches sustained extensive damage.

"We have some businesses that took some substantial losses," he said.

City Clerk Stella Rebitch said that in addition to PEMA, officials from the Army Corps of Engineers, PennDOT and the DEP were in the city to view damage and try to reopen roads that were closed by the flooding.

The city is asking for volunteers to meet at city hall at 7 a.m. today to help clean homes of elderly residents.

"We're working around the clock," Rebitch said.

Ron Roy, pastor of Cross of Christ Ministries in Jeannette, pulled damaged furniture from the church yesterday.

Though the floodwaters poured into the basement and ruined the floor, furniture and files, "I did find my hearing aids," Roy said, vowing that Sunday services will be held as usual.

"We're going to have services here on Sunday, definitely," he said. "We'll get it presentable by Sunday."

In Unity, PennDOT closed a section of Route 130, just east of Pleasant Unity, where storm water run-off damaged a bridge and the roadway between Pleasant Unity and Lycippus roads.

"It appears it will be a long-term closure because of the amount of damage," said PennDOT District 12 spokeswoman Valerie Petersen.

Sandy Smythe, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety, said the county is checking on damage with all 65 municipalities.

"We're out there doing what we can," she said. "There is still a lot of frustration among the people."

The county is advising people who were in the water or touched water-logged items with their bare hands to get tetanus shots.

Why streams flood

Jim Pillsbury, hydraulic engineer for the Westmoreland Conservation District, said a number of factors — both natural and manmade — play a role in flooding. Most stream channels by nature cannot carry the volume of water from a five-year storm, Pillsbury said.

"Nature does not make stream channels to handle a 100-year storm, for example," he said. "Nature makes stream channels to handle the everyday storm."

The amount of rain that has fallen before a big storm can play a role.

"If you have a rainy day, and then it rains again the next day, you'll get more run-off because the ground is already saturated," Pillsbury said.

Human activity plays an important role, too.

"They've built houses or garages or streets really close to streams," Pillsbury said. "When the stream starts coming out of the banks, it has no place to go than in somebody's home and somebody's yard."

The amount of run-off varies according to what type of material the rain hits.

Paved surfaces such as roofs and driveways generate two to three times as much run-off as a lawn would. Undisturbed woodlands generate the least amount, Pillsbury said.

The way people divert run-off can cause problems. Water moving through a natural channel travels at 4 to 5 feet per second. But in a pipe, it travels 20 to 30 feet per second.

"If you have water moving very quickly and it all gets to the bottom of the hill at once, it's going to cause a problem," Pillsbury said. "If you replace a stream channel with a big pipe, that water will really get going very fast in the pipe."

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