Fatal flooding in 2011 on Washington Boulevard brings suit against many

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For more than six decades, attorneys allege a plethora of government agencies have known -- and seen -- the potential for serious flooding on a low-lying section of Washington Boulevard in Highland Park, but have done close to nothing to fix it.

And on Aug. 19, 2011, after a storm dumped more than 2 inches of water on the city's East End in one afternoon, floodwater once again submerged the boulevard, killing a mother and her two young daughters who drowned in their minivan after it became submerged in 9 feet of water and sweeping another woman, who escaped her car, to her death.

The families of the four victims -- Mary Saflin, 72, and Kimberly Griffith, 45, and daughters Mikaela, 8, and Brenna, 12 -- filed a wrongful death suit Friday in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, alleging that the city of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority and the state Department of Transportation, which owns the road, failed repeatedly to remedy chronic flooding problems on the boulevard.

Also named in the suit were Alcosan, which handles stormwater management, Allegheny County, commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Chester Engineers, a consultant for both Alcosan and PWSA.

Chrysler Group LLC, which manufactured the Griffiths' minivan, is another defendant. Attorney Alan Perer said Chrysler is being sued because the electric windows didn't work once submerged and the water pressure kept the victims from opening the doors to escape.

At a news conference Friday, Chris Griffith, Kimberly's widow and the father of Mikaela and Brenna, sat at a conference table sandwiched between attorneys Perer and Paul Manion. Before him, enlarged photos of his wife and two youngest daughters were scattered on the table.

"My family's been devastated. Every day is a struggle," Mr. Griffith said, speaking softly and shifting uncomfortably in his seat. "It's something that never should have happened. And I'd like to make sure it gets corrected so it doesn't happen to anybody else."

In the suit, attorneys described the flood that took their lives and the life of Mrs. Saflin as a preventable event, the result of decades of negligence by state and local agencies.

The 40-page complaint chronicles in great detail repeated flooding on the very same stretch of roadway where the four perished, starting with the June 1951 flood that killed one woman in hauntingly similar fashion. Witnesses then described the same sights that they did in 2011 -- a rush of water 9 feet deep and geysers of water that shot heavy manhole covers into the air. In the years following that first fatal flood, proposals to redo Washington Boulevard or to establish a warning system were never undertaken.

The suit describes five more floods that left that section of Washington Boulevard underwater, including one that occurred in July 2011, a month before the fatal flood.

Lawyers for the families believe that the five agencies named in the suit each played a role in the flood. The commonwealth owns some of the land on a slope near the boulevard and leases it to Pittsburgh Job Corps, which had a construction site there. As the rain pounded the hillside, mud, rock and debris broke through a silt fence and poured down the hillside into the street. Alcosan, PWSA and the engineers they consult were all responsible for a stormwater management system, attorneys believe.

The suit acknowledged one action the city had taken in the wake of the tragedy: the installation of a warning sign and a flood gate system that would close the boulevard if it showed signs of flooding.

"As of this date, however, defendants still have not yet proffered a meaningful solution to the flooding problem on Washington Boulevard," they wrote.

Mr. Griffith also heaped criticism on the city, accusing it of failing on its pledge to provide support for the families of the victims.

"I've never heard from the mayor's office," he said. Mr. Perer said the city had been uncooperative and had refused to provide a police report of the incident.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl responded to the suit by laying out a number of actions the city had taken in addition to the installation of the floodgates. The city has trained 2,000 public safety personnel in swift water rescue techniques and directed PWSA to commission a report on the flood.

That report, prepared by MS Consulting, was presented to PWSA board members Friday, where it got a mixed reception. It offered a range of solutions to the problems that have plagued the boulevard.

Councilman Patrick Dowd, who sits on the board, complained that it was too myopic, focusing only remedies that ensure safety for motorists. He believed that it should more broadly affect flooding in the watershed.

Jim Good, the interim executive director of PWSA, was gentler in his criticism and recommended the consultant explore more environmentally friendly solutions. With any solution, he said, the board will have to weigh "public safety, cost, ease of implementation and speed of implementation."

"It's a complicated issue. ... There may be different opinions about what best balances the four, and the board will thrash that out," he said.

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Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. Staff writer Alex Zimmerman contributed.


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