Flash flooding leaves widespread damage in Pittsburgh area

Heavy rain inundates area roads, parking lots and basements

This story was written by Jon Schmitz and Paula Reed Ward, based on their reporting and that of Kaitlynn Riely, Liz Navratil, Mark Belko, Maria Sciullo and Molly Born.

People in Western Pennsylvania braced Wednesday night for a second round of potentially devastating storms following torrents that dropped as much as 3 inches of rain in some parts of the area during the day.

But all of the foreboding and warnings ended up as mostly just that as a string of storms that arrived shortly after the evening rush hour brought with them less rain than was expected.

"It moved through so quickly," said meteorologist Brad Rehak, of the National Weather Service. "It wasn't as heavy."

Rainfall that was expected to end just after midnight should be replaced throughout the next three days with drier, more comfortable weather -- aiding in crews' cleanup efforts.

Throughout the morning Wednesday, a number of emergency swift- water rescues were conducted to recover stranded motorists from flooded roads throughout the South Hills. But the evening was a different story, said Pittsburgh public safety director Michael Huss.

"I think the strategy we put in place this afternoon, we prevented a lot of problems we didn't have to respond to," he said. "We're lucky because we have no loss of life."

The strategy included keeping a number of the road closures in flood-prone areas in effect throughout the day and into the night.

By doing that, Mr. Huss said, no motorists would be placed in jeopardy -- and, consequently, neither would emergency personnel.

By 9 p.m., swift water rescue teams were released from standby, and emergency crews were being called out mostly for downed wires and trees.

The Regional Urban Search and Rescue Strike Team was placed on standby in the Strip District late in the day, Mr. Huss said, in the event of any building collapse because of tornado warnings for the area, but they, too, were released without having to be deployed.

For a time Wednesday evening, the weather appeared extremely threatening. The weather service issued a tornado warning for Lawrence County and weather observers spotted funnel clouds in the area. The weather service said it had not confirmed a tornado, but said there were reports of damage to barns and trees.

Lawrence County emergency dispatchers said they fielded as many as 80 calls, many of them for flooded basements.

There was still plenty of rain and some strong wind, leading to scattered power outages. As of 11 p.m., Duquesne Light reported 30,500 customers without power, while West Penn Power listed about 5,400 without electricity.

The heavy rains Wednesday morning started to fall in parts of the district shortly before daybreak, causing swollen streams and creeks to overflow, flooding roads, parking lots and basements. The rain felled trees, disrupted power and stretched the resources of emergency responders.

The worst flooding was centered in the southern and western neighborhoods of Pittsburgh and the southern and western suburbs of Allegheny County.

Mr. Rehak said he did not expect there to be flooding on any of the rivers in the area because so much of the rainfall was localized. Flash flooding like was experienced Wednesday is caused by the small size of the creek basins tasked with accepting the rainfall and runoff.

"What floods rivers are widespread events -- several counties at one time," he said. "A lot of the problems are poor drainage.

"There are roads where there shouldn't be."

No fatalities or serious injuries were reported Wednesday, but damage was widespread. Dozens of roads were closed, some of them washed away by cascading floodwaters.

Route 51 and Banksville Road in the South Hills were among the worst affected. Banksville was closed in both directions due to heavy flooding and debris, but reopened Wednesday night. Route 51 also was closed for part of the day, making the afternoon rush hour more difficult for South Hills commuters.

Rescue teams pulled drivers from several vehicles trapped in rapidly rising waters, including a few who drove around barricades and into trouble.

PG graphic: Area rainfall
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Pittsburgh police pulled officers from every station to help during the worst parts of the flooding and then called in detectives from headquarters to help monitor closed intersections.

Scott Deutsch, assistant chief of emergency operations for Allegheny County, said the 911 center received about 1,600 calls from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., compared to about 530 during the same period last week.

Megan Esper of Banksville was driving on Banksville Road when she saw a vehicle ahead of her getting swamped where the road dips below an overpass at the entrance to the Parkway West.

"I saw how fast it was coming and I said, 'I'm not going any farther,'" she said. "All the water on the other side of Banksville was bursting through like rapids."

Police closed the road in both directions from Crane Avenue to the parkway and said a section of it had washed away entirely.

Floodwaters flowed onto the Parkway West near the Fort Pitt Tunnels, shutting the outbound side and adding a layer of misery to an already difficult commute. The Port Authority suspended Light Rail Transit service for a time after debris washed onto tracks in the South Hills.

PG graphic: Flooded areas
(Click image for larger version)

When service resumed, Blue-Line Library trips went no farther south than Lytle Station in Bethel Park because of damage to the tracks. Shuttle buses served the orphaned stops through the evening rush and the prognosis for reopening the closed section for this morning's rush was uncertain.

Several feet of water flooded the Library park-n-ride lot on Route 88 in South Park. The water was so deep that some cars were floating.

Basements and buildings were flooded in Bridgeville, Castle Shannon, Dormont, Duquesne, Elizabeth Borough, Elizabeth Township, Jefferson Hills, North Fayette, Robinson, Scott, South Park, Versailles, White Oak, and western and southern Pittsburgh neighborhoods.

In Oakdale, the swollen North Branch and Robinson Run creeks overflowed their banks, flooding the borough's tiny business district with about 3 feet of water.

Wednesday's rain flooded the basements of dozens of businesses and homes along Noblestown Road and shut off access to the business district.

"I don't know how many times this town can go through this," said Dennis Watters, a retired Oakdale fire chief.

One resident, Marylynn Lebec-Campbell cried as she recounted the frantic text message she got at work warning her about rising water along Noblestown Road. By the time she got home, the flooding filled the basement of her house at 6160 Noblestown with 3 to 4 feet of water.

The family had spent $25,000 to renovate the basement after moving in in 2009. They did not have flood insurance.

"It's gone. It's gone," she said.

Mark Simonds, pastor of Oakdale United Presbyterian Church, also had "plenty" of water in the basement of his home in the town's business district. Firefighters at the station next to his house removed his wife and children from the home as waters began rising Wednesday morning.

"I was in a canoe trying to get to them and I got a call that they were already at the church," Pastor Simonds said.

McDonald Fire Chief Terry Kerr estimated that flooding damaged 10 businesses and 15 to 20 homes in the borough, many in the O'Hara Street area.

Several municipalities, including Castle Shannon, Elizabeth Borough, Findlay, North Fayette and Oakdale, declared disaster emergencies.

On Irwin Street in Elizabeth Borough, "it looked like Ohiopyle coming down the road," said Paul Battle, referring to the rapids of the Youghiogheny River.

The storms briefly disrupted Pittsburgh's public safety communications system and knocked out PennDOT's traffic management center in Collier.

In Findlay, businesses parallel to Route 30 in Imperial were flooded. Camp Meeting Road between Route 30 and Hookstown Grade Road was closed after becoming impassable, Findlay manager Gary Klingman said.

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First Published July 10, 2013 11:15 AM


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