Thunderstorms in Pittsburgh region cause flash floods, shut Route 51
Jason Donahue, left, of Clairton and Dustin Tichenor of Bethel Park push their vehicle out of rising floodwaters on Route 51 near Bausman Street on Friday.
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A powerful line of "pop-up" thunderstorms that stalled over the region Friday afternoon dumped more than 2 inches of rain in an hour on some areas, unleashing flash floods that closed roads and trapped about two dozen drivers in the South Hills.
No major injuries were reported, despite water that rose as high as 4 feet in some places. Many residents and business owners in flood-prone areas suffered property damage, however.
Some said they were frustrated by public officials' inability or unwillingness to fix a flooding problem that has plagued some areas -- in particular, the busy intersection of routes 51 and 88, where a creek next to the roadway rises quickly and often overtops its banks -- for decades.
Last August's tragedy on Washington Boulevard, where a flash flood killed four people, could happen in the South Hills, too, said Pat Leopardi, owner of Leopardi Auto Sales on Saw Mill Run Boulevard. The area around his business has flooded five times in 15 years, he said.
"You get an older person or somebody with children who can't get their kids out of the car, you could have a major problem," said Mr. Leopardi, whose workers had to clean up mud and debris but whose cars were left undamaged.
Thunderstorms developing along a slow-moving cold front concentrated rainfall on a relatively small region in a short amount of time.
"The thunderstorms didn't move much," said Brad Rehak, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh. "They kept developing along the front and moving over the same area."
In Castle Shannon -- the closest rainfall gauge to the Saw Mill Run Boulevard area -- 2.14 inches of rain fell between 12:35 and 1:45 p.m., he said. Rainfall for the month to date is 3.59 inches, compared to normal rainfall of 2.51 inches.
There were multiple reports of water on roadways in the southern part of the county. In Findlay, the National Weather Service received a report about 4:30 p.m. that a creek overran its banks and flooded bridges and homes near McClaren Road. Earlier, water flooded the intersection of Cliff Mine and Mahoney roads, forcing North Fayette to declare a state of emergency.
North Fayette Fire Chief Gary Hamilton said he wasn't aware of any rescue efforts in the township and all roads had reopened by 7:30 p.m.
"I'd say we dodged a bullet," he said.
Alvin Henderson, chief of the Allegheny County Department of Emergency Services, said the county received 2,507 emergency calls from midnight through 4 p.m. Friday. From 1 to 4 p.m., at the height of the storm, the center received 929 calls, mostly related to flooded roads, fallen trees and minor landslide issues.
Chief Henderson said he will collect damage reports from local emergency management coordinators and, if necessary, make recommendations for improvements that could prevent flooding in the future.
"But, again, to have 11/2 to 2 inches of rain fall in such a short period of time -- that's putting large quantity of water in streams that run along state Route 51 there and can quickly overwhelm a storm sewer system or a small tributary stream like Peters Creek," he said.
Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Michael Huss said the flooding did provide a test of swift water rescue teams that were created and special water training that all public-safety personnel received after the Washington Boulevard drownings.
"I was proud of the way the city responded today," he said.
The emergency gates to keep drivers out of the lower stretch of Washington Boulevard during high water were not activated, and no problems were reported there.
Flash flooding was concentrated in the South Hills, where Mr. Huss said public-safety personnel made two rescues in the Route 51 area, one of a stranded pedestrian and the other a motorist whose car was trapped by floodwaters. He said a fire department battalion chief sustained a back injury rescuing the pedestrian. Three rescue boats were deployed to Route 51 but not used in the rescues. The roads remained closed most of the afternoon and did not reopen until shortly after 6 p.m.
Helen Porter, a bartender at the Hillview Tavern near the intersection, said it had rained hard for about 20 minutes on Friday afternoon when she noticed water dripping from the ceiling. Thinking a clogged gutter had overflowed, she called the business's owner. Five minutes later, she called him back.
"I said, 'No, I'm not worried about the ceiling. Water is pouring through both doors,'" said Ms. Porter, who ended up standing in 6 inches of floodwater in her sandals. "We shut the doors and it was coming through the side wall."
Outside, she said, she could see several motorists standing on the roofs of their cars before they were rescued, and saw a car floating down Route 88.
Among those whose cars were damaged was Curtis Ross, of Uniontown.
Mr. Ross, who works for Inland Water Pollution Control, said he was part of a crew the company had working on a sewer bypass pipe in the creek that runs along Route 88.
The water in the creek, he said, went from being a foot deep to 15-feet deep in a span of 20 to 30 minutes. His father-in-law, also working there, told him it was coming in 2-foot waves.
Mr. Ross said rushing water was strong enough to push a Dumpster across the roadway and left a tide of logs, branches, mud and other debris in its wake.
Matt Phillips, who works at Warp Speed Motor Sports, an auto shop near the intersection of Routes 51 and 88, said 12 cars at the shop were flooded.
"This is phenomenal. I'm just kind of dumbfounded right now," Mr. Phillips said as he was looking over the parking lot with the damaged vehicles.
First Published July 21, 2012 12:03 am