Flooding bad, but could have been worse

Mike Stocklin, who works for Servpro , removes damaged floor tiles at the Plaza at King of Prussia after flooding Friday morning.
Mike Stocklin, who works for Servpro , removes damaged floor tiles at the Plaza at King of Prussia after flooding Friday morning.
Posted: October 02, 2010

The most disruptive tropical storm in more than a decade swamped the region with record rains, led to the deaths of at least two people, and knocked out power to more than 100,000 customers.

And the effects could ripple well into the weekend.

The Schuylkill and most streams in the area have slipped slowly beneath flood levels, but the Delaware River is due to crest perilously close to or just above flood stage at Trenton on Saturday afternoon, the National Weather Service said.

At least Saturday's weather - sunny, cool, dry - should be pleasant for the cleanup after a riotous day of flooding set off by as much as 10.55 inches of rain, with the hardest-hit areas west of the Delaware.

After ingesting a massive quantity of tropical moisture that began falling fitfully before daybreak Thursday, waterways all over the region sloshed over their banks, chasing 200 people out of an apartment complex in West Norriton, Montgomery County, and turning tiny Darby Borough into a workingman's Venice.

"The town is closed down," Darby Police Chief Robert Smythe said, adding that some people had to be rescued from second-floor windows as the overflowing Darby Creek spilled into the streets.

Donna Woodruff, 51, of Green Lane, Montgomery County, evidently drowned when she became trapped in her car on Skippack Road, which was flooded by an overflowing creek, state police said. Woodruff was married with two sons. "Donna was an ever-present member of a big Irish family," said Kristin Bovelle, her step-sister. "She had already planned a family get-together for Thanksgiving and bought a turkey because that's what gave her the most joy."

Thursday morning, a man was killed when his SUV spun and slammed into a tree on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Chester County, police said. State police identified him as Ihor Shyra, 47, of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Elsewhere, the storm was blamed for at least five deaths in North Carolina. Around here, on a day when the rain totals sounded more like snow accumulations, the roll call of shut-down roads - including Martin Luther King Drive, parts of Route 202, the I-295 ramp at Haddon Heights/Mount Ephraim - was about as long as a school-closing list on a snow day. About 25 schools decided to close or open late.

Floodwater inundated the King of Prussia Mall in Upper Merion Township, Montgomery County, but only one store, Lord & Taylor's, was forced to close. The heftiest rain totals fell just to the north and west of Philadelphia, but the city smashed two century-old daily rain records on consecutive days, with 2.41 inches on Thursday and 2.99 on Friday.

In New Jersey, Gibbstown weighed in with more than seven inches, and the storm brought tree branches down on power lines along Woodbury-Glassboro Road in Pitman.

But the Shore was spared this time around, with rain amounts generally under two inches, the National Weather Service said.

As a result of all the rain and wind, Peco Energy Co. reported 119,000 power outages. But to put that in perspective, the remnants of Hurricane Floyd, which left more than a foot of rain around here on Sept. 15-16, 1999, resulted in more than 400,000 outages.

Floyd's flooding traumas also were far more extensive than the ones on Friday, and not just because Floyd's rains were more impressive.

The rains this time were generated by a complex storm, a hybrid formed from the remains of short-lived Tropical Storm Nicole. Nicole supplied it with prodigious amounts of tropical moisture. The first pulse of rain arrived early Thursday, and the rain continued for several hours.

Then the region got a huge break, said Tony Gigi, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mount Holly. The rain tapered off and even stopped for several hours, allowing the ground to digest some of that first batch.

After a Nicole-related storm formed off the Carolinas, a second round of rain early Friday set off the bulk of the flooding.

"When I went to bed last night, it was raining," Annette Burton, 70, a former Chester councilwoman, said Friday, "but I never even expected that it was going to do this." Fire and police workers came to her door at 4 a.m., offering to evacuate her and her family. "I told them we'd ride it out." She lucked out. Her home on the 1400 block of Kerlin Street got only a few inches of water.

In some ways, most of the region lucked out for another reason. In addition to the break in the rain, the flooding effects were mitigated by nature's having made dust for most of the last several weeks.

In the previous two months, Philadelphia's official rainfall was about a third of the normal total, and the region's streams were at or below normal coming into Thursday.

Still, five to 10 inches of episodic rains were bound to cause some problems, and they did. About 100 rescues were made in Delaware County, said Ed Truitt, the county's emergency management coordinator.

In flood-prone West Norriton, elderly residents of the Jefferson Apartment Complex were roused at 3 a.m. and told to evacuate. At the Norristown Boat Club, picnic umbrellas and tables were floating in the Schuylkill.

Andy Causak, who lives on West Norriton's Indian Lane along the Schuylkill, was philosophical about it all. "When you live on the river," he said, "when the creek rises, you're in it."

Contact staff writer Anthony R. Wood at 610-313-8210 or twood@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writers Kathy Boccella, Katie Eder, Dan Hardy, Larry King, James Osborne, Peter Mucha, Maria Panaritis, and Kathleen Brady Shea contributed to this article.

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