Flash flood stymies Pittsburgh

How could it happen that four people in a major city would be swept away by water?

Posted: August 22, 2011

After four people drowned in a flash flood on a road in a major American city, the question lingers: Why?

"It's hard to believe those kind of events can still happen," said Tom Palmosina, codirector of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.

Two women and two children died Friday afternoon near the intersection of Washington and Allegheny River Boulevards, where a nearly identical flood had occurred just a month ago - and the three governments responsible for the infrastructure had already begun talking about how to fix the problem.

"There are a lot of people who are involved and responsible here," said City Councilman Patrick Dowd, who sits on the PWSA board. "In my mind, we're all responsible. The city is responsible for water before it enters the sewer. PWSA is responsible for water in its pipes that it conveys to" the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority.

The number of people who died in the flooding increased to four Saturday when searchers found the body of Mary Saflin, 72, of Oakmont, along the shore of the Allegheny River near Washington Boulevard.

Investigators said they believed she had gotten out of her car in the flood and had been drawn into a storm sewer near the road.

The bodies of Kimberly Griffith, 45, of Plum, and her daughters Brenna, 12, and Mikaela, 8, were found Friday night in their car, which was submerged in nine feet of water around 4 p.m. Friday.

Three Pittsburgh police officers and Raymond DeMichiei, deputy director of the Pittsburgh Office of Emergency Management, who used two rowboats commandeered from a nearby marina, and River Rescue personnel rescued 15 people who were clinging to trees or stranded on the roofs of their vehicles.

Eighteen vehicles were recovered when the water receded. Officials searched Friday night and Saturday morning for Saflin, who had been talking to her daughter on the phone before the line went dead.

What makes Friday's flood, and a similar one July 18, more troubling is that none of the governmental bodies involved - the PWSA, Alcosan, and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation - is sure what caused the problem in either instance or how to fix it.

PennDot said that it was responsible only for the road surfaces there, but that it had been talking about some improvements to help prevent flooding.

Alcosan said it was beginning work on $2 billion worth of projects to help alleviate flooding, but that it didn't know if anything could be done to help stop a flood as massive as Friday's.

And the PWSA said it thought it had big enough sewers along those roads to handle the worst storms, and wasn't sure it could do much to prevent such problems, either.

Councilman Doug Shields said he had been told as much Friday morning in a meeting with PWSA's leadership. He had asked for the meeting to talk about such issues when the July 18 flooding of Washington Boulevard came up.

PWSA's director of sewer operations, Rick Obermeier, told him: "Assuming the systems are working properly in an event like this, there's nothing you can really do about it."

That statement became even more frustrating Friday evening, Shields said.

"If there's recognition of it and you're having trouble with storm events, there needs to be a plan to account for that," said Shields, who grew up on Churchill Avenue just up the hill from where the flood occurred. "Maybe we can put in a warning system and get in there and shut the roads down when we know a storm event is coming."

"We know when the Mon Wharf is going to flood we shut it down. Why can't we do that here, too?"

Dowd said he had been part of similar talks recently.

"We were recently starting a conversation" about the placement and capacity of 102-inch and 108-inch pipes on Washington Boulevard, he said, "asking: Are the pipes the right capacity? Is the road built the right way? We ought to look at that road and ask, 'Is there a better way to design that road?' "

PennDot is responsible for the road surface, spokesman Jim Struzzi said, but the city is responsible for storm drains and the sewer system.

He said the area had a history of flooding. On July 18, motorists had to be rescued, but no one was seriously injured.

"We responded after the flooding occurred," he said. "We repaired damage to the road and reopened Route 8. We are not responsible for drainage within the city, only the surface of the road."

He said that because of the history of flooding, officials were aware of the problem.

"We've been in ongoing discussions with the city," he said.

Palmosina began his career with the city's sewer agency 37 years ago as a laborer.

Never in all that time had he seen anything like what occurred Friday night on Washington Boulevard.

"It's a terrible and unfortunate event that affects all of us," he said of the deaths of the women and children.

"The rain events show us the fact that we need a more permanent solution to handle this problem," he said. "But I don't know of any system that can handle 2 inches of rain in 37 minutes."

He said that he believed that the two city sewers alongside Washington Boulevard were adequate, but that they then funnel their water into a nearby Alcosan "diversion chamber" that eventually pumps collected water onto Alcosan's treatment plant on the North Side.

"The diversion chamber may be something we need to investigate," he said.

Alcosan spokeswoman Nancy Barylak said, "It is difficult to build a system to handle that much flow in such a short time. Today's weather has changed and these storms have changed."

Maybe so, but Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said in a statement Saturday: "I am deeply saddened by yesterday's tragic flash flooding, and my heartfelt sympathy goes out to the families of the four victims. I would like to commend public safety officials and residents for their heroic acts that resulted in 11 rescues. We will now turn our efforts to supporting the families affected by the tragedy, and in making sure this never happens again."

Barylak said that despite the interconnected system, a joint solution to truly fix it hadn't been discussed before - and that one might not be affordable anyway.

"The municipalities we serve own the sewer lines. PWSA, representing the city, owns those sewer lines. Those lines then connect to Alcosan. It goes from the homeowner to PWSA to Alcosan," she said.

"Nobody has approached us asking for our assistance or for conversations about a fix. That road has been there for how long? All of a sudden we're getting short heavy bursts of storms. Does it happen often enough to spend billions" to reengineer the road? That's a vexing problem," she said.

Palmosina said the PWSA and Alcosan had agreed to talk Monday about possible solutions, including temporary ones like Shields suggested.

"We'll sit down and brainstorm, without pointing fingers and casting blame, and see if we can come up with some solution," he said. "We have to do something."

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