Damage repaired, trauma remains after 2004 floods
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As Katrina gives the nation a fresh reminder of how devastating hurricane rains can be on low-lying river cities, the Pittsburgh area is still mulling over the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan's deluge last September.
While not approaching the devastation of Katrina along the Gulf Coast, Ivan nevertheless left its imprint on the region.
In Millvale and Etna, like other communities along the Three Rivers, business districts find themselves "recovered" a year later but undeniably changed. Businesses have come back and are carrying on, buttressed by the support of their communities but with the fearful memory of the floods that threatened their towns a year ago.
"I think it has really brought the community together. People have gone through a common struggle: neighbors helping neighbors," the Rev. Richard Neumann said of Etna's recovery.
Neumann, pastor at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Etna, helped organize the Etna Team for Neighborhood Assistance, a group of church and community volunteers who helped coordinate the recovery effort.
In the wake of Ivan's rains, business owners and residents leaned on ad hoc local organizations like Neumann's group and the Millvale Assistance Team as well as organizations such as North Hills Community Outreach in Hampton. The groups coordinated clean up and repairs, kept local officials apprised of people's needs, collected donations, served meals and did anything else that needed to be done.
"A flood starts with one drop of water, but that's the same way with the relief efforts," Neumann said. "There's a continual flow of kindness. If someone offers their house, or somebody does this or that, and then somebody brings a pot of soup -- you just see how people open their hearts up."
"The ETNA center at Emmanuel, they're still helping me," said Mary Ann Tomaro, owner of Mary Ann's Salon in Etna, which was inundated by the floodwaters. "They helped me with my fences, my parking lot, with going downtown to seminars and groups with the chamber of commerce."
Mary Ellen Ramage, Millvale's manager, said the local groups did such a "phenomenal job" meeting the needs of residents and business people "that it gave the borough time to focus on the issues that we should [have been] focused on."
"We still have about 25 families we're still working with in Etna," Neumann said. "We're trying to wrap things up by mid-November, but for the most part, the businesses are back in and things are getting back to normal."
For some businesses, though, the road "back to normal" has been more difficult. In Millvale, Yetter's Candies is only now poised to reopen -- almost on the flood's anniversary.
"It was devastating," said owner Ed Carr. "We lost all of the equipment, freezers, refrigerators. Had to put new floors in. All the chocolate equipment had to be torn down and put back together again, and in every room the drywall had to be cut out and replaced. ... It's taken a long time."
Carr said volunteer help from friends and family, the municipal office in Millvale and the community at large was key.
"I learned one thing. I have more friends than I ever thought I had."
The Rev. George Mendis, pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Millvale, helped lead the Millvale Assistance Team.
"As far as the physical recovery itself, we've made great strides," he said.
But those strides, he said, can't erase the trauma of the flood completely, as Millvale sustained damage from which it has not yet recovered.
"Some houses [were] demolished, some of them are going to be, some businesses tried to come back but they couldn't make it ... there are just those kinds of pockets of victory and sadness."
"People are coming back, but it's been slow. ... It's taking people a long time to get back on their feet," said Millvale Manager Virginia Heller.
"You can tell that the town's had a rough year," Mendis added. "But this ability for the town to come back, it's just been the individual homeowners and business owners; they did it, along with the cooperation we had between the congregations, the community and the borough of Millvale."
Neumann, referring to Etna, had much the same assessment. "For the first two weeks, it looked like a war zone. But you could drive through now and you'd say, 'Where was the flood?' "
Though most businesses weren't forced to close their doors forever because of Ivan, the flood fundamentally changed the way owners look at their businesses and their communities.
"We opened," said Mike Martin, of Martin Tire in Etna. "It was a hardship, but we opened."
He added: "I do think, if it happened again, we would know what to do. We would be able to get going faster, but it would still be a daunting and time-consuming task."
"It's fresh in people's minds," said Heller, in Millvale. "Every time it rains, people get scared."
First Published September 15, 2005 12:00 am