Water woes

Area counties cleaning up after recent heavy rains

Mirror photo by William Kibler / Many area residents were faced with cleaning up after floodwaters damaged their homes on Monday.

Will Graham of Munhall loves his summer home on Camp Chalybeate Road in Bedford Township, where he can sit on the porch and watch Dunnings Creek flow by, 75 feet away, in pastoral surroundings that are nevertheless conveniently close to Bedford Borough’s commercial district.

Last week, Graham paid the price for the house’s proximity to the creek, as the humid air that remained from Tropical Storm Gordon bumped up against cooler air to the north and stalled. The “thermal boundary” of the cold air wrung out Gordon’s leftover moisture, generating a steady rain — neither a downpour nor a drizzle — from Saturday morning through all of Monday.

“It was definitely one of the longer lasting periods of rain we’ve had,” said meteorologist Charles Ross of the National Weather Service in State College, where colleagues were hard-pressed to remember a longer stint of consistent precipitation.

Occurring after a rainy summer that had left the ground sodden and creeks and rivers high, the storm dropped between 5 and 8.6 inches, raising those creeks and rivers further, until many overtopped their banks, flooding roads, impeding travel, stranding motorists, surrounding houses, forcing rescues and flooding basements and — in a few cases — first floors.

In Bedford County, the commissioners declared an emergency, and Emer­gency Management Director Dave Cubbison began collecting information that could eventually lead to funding help, provided that the county, then the state, reach the monetary loss thresholds that justify release of federal money, Cubbison said.

In southern Clearfield County, there were three or four houses with first floor flooding along with widespread inundation of basements, according to Joe Bigar, Clearfield County emergency management coordinator.

The American Red Cross placed three families from Chester Hill in a motel, and Bigar is gathering information to determine whether the area may be eligible for funding help.

In Blair County, problem areas included the Loop, Frankstown, Canoe Creek and Williamsburg, with lots of road closures and basements that needed pumping, but no major damage, according to officials, including Mark Taylor, Blair County emergency management director.

In Huntingdon County, the Borough of Huntingdon was almost isolated by road closures, and there were problems in Alexandria and Smithfield Village, but mostly just “nuisance flooding,” according to Joe Thompson, county emergency management director.

Graham, the owner of the summer house near Bedford, awoke early Sunday and saw the creek threatening to spill over its banks and onto the lane that runs in front of his place, so he left with his wife and grandson.

He learned later from a neighbor that had he waited another hour, he wouldn’t have been able to drive out.

Dealing with the damage

He was back Wednesday, dealing with the damage wrought by what must have been a raging torrent.

The water mark on his front screen door was 3 feet above the threshold.

Even on Wednesday, the creek was running high — within its banks, but moving quickly in the channel. It was brown like coffee with cream.

A large sycamore limb was snagged high in a tree — a relic of the high water, which crested Monday.

Graham had lugged some of his ruined belongings, including a couple of mattresses, out to the front yard.

Inside, he’d moved furniture to the middle of his living room, exposing the paneled wainscot, which was already buckling.

When he’d arrived Wednesday morning to survey the mess, he’d felt downcast, but the labor of starting to clean up had settled his mood.

He’ll be needing a dumpster for the stuff, he said.

His wife, he said, was philosophical, saying, “‘It is what it is.'”

An hour earlier, several doors down, Casie and Nathan Umbleby were trying to come to grips with the 2.5 feet of water that had flowed through the first floor of their cottage — their full-time house.

As the water rose Monday, Casie had watched from her mother’s home on Chalybeate Road, on higher ground.

“It was heartbreaking,” she said.

Both Casie and Nathan have alerts set on their smartphones for the water level of the creek — hers for 8 feet, his for 9.

At 9 feet, it’s time to get the cars out, and at 10 feet, it’s time to get themselves out, Nathan said.

Nathan finally left after the creek had surrounded the house, but before the water reached the top of the steps, after shutting off the panel box.

On Wednesday, Nathan and some friends had torn out carpet and had begun to tear out wallboard.

One friend, Zach Robson of Schellsburg, who happens to work for Mihalko’s Fire and Water Restoration, reiterated advice from an insurance adjuster about the need for removing drywall above the high-water mark, trashing the living room paneling altogether and stripping anything above the subfloor, followed by disinfection and drying.

Emphasizing that he wasn’t pushing for his own company, Robson advised the Umblebys that it would be easier to hire a firm to do the work, explaining that drying could take perhaps four dehumidifiers and 50 fans running in the house for several days, to ensure against mold.

“If you miss a spot, that’s a mold factory,” Robson said.

According to Nathan, the house had been flooded six times previously, most recently in 2010, although last weekend’s was the first time for his family.

In 1996, during a widespread storm, water had actually reached the top of the pitched roof of the one-story house, Casie said.

Flood insurance was mandatory for them, because they have a mortgage, Casie said.

They discussed the possibility of raising the house on stilts, but Robson suggested that would be massively expensive.

Because the basic structure is concrete block, it might make sense to build a second floor on top, then clear the first floor and treat it like a basement, everyone agreed.

The couple and their three young daughters will stay with Casie’s mother’s for now, Nathan said.

There were piles of belongings in the yard that were destined for the landfill, and furniture on the porch that can be salvaged.

Painted on the wall of the dining room were the words of a Psalm: “For the Lord is good; his love endures forever.”

“It’s the only reason I still have peace of mind,” Casie said, when asked about it. “He will help us get through it.”

“I’ll be OK,” Nathan said.

They attend the Claysburg Church of God, and friends from the congregation had responded to their plight already.

“I still feel blessed,” Casie said. “We’re all OK.”

Water rescues

In Blair County, three water rescue teams using motorized inflatable craft were operating along the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River in the approximately 24 hours beginning Sunday evening, according to Denny Walls, chief of the Geeseytown Community Fire Company, including teams from Portage and Saxton.

The first responders performed multiple rescues near the soccer fields in the East Loop on Monday, with a total of five people and four dogs brought out from homes surrounded by water, said Denny’s brother, Brian Walls.

There were at least two rescues in Linds Crossing, one of which involved approaching with a boat that first responders pushed as they waded through river current along the roadway from about 200 yards upstream, Brian Walls said.

Generally, water rescue workers try to stay on roadways, because there are fewer obstacles and less debris and because they know generally what’s underfoot, he said.

They got a man out of one house, then a little further along, got a woman out of another, Brian Walls said.

They used the motor when they got into deeper, swifter water.

On Sunday evening, the Geeseytown team delivered an ambulance crew to a house in Rolling Hills in a four-wheel drive pickup and then another in a brush tanker through water where an ambulance couldn’t go, Brian Walls said.

Water rescue crews work almost exclusively in daylight, because it’s safer, he said. They typically warn people who decline to be removed from houses that are surrounded that extraction probably won’t be an option after it gets dark.

Conversely, people in houses surrounded by water often feel safe during daylight, but grow fearful and confused after dark, when they hear the water that may be rising around them, but can’t see it, Denny Walls said.

In the dark, if the power goes out, “things might go downhill,” he said.

“We would prefer they come out early, instead of waiting until the 11th hour,” Denny Walls said. Coming out late “puts us at higher risk,” he said.

Rescuers generally look for an accessible door, get the residents’ attention, invite them to come out, place life jackets on them, load them in the boats and take them to a “deposit area,” Denny Walls said.

Water rescues “are not for the faint of heart,” he said.

People don’t realize the power of currents during floods, he said, recalling recalls losing his footing in ankle-deep water.

Roads

Last weekend’s storm led to the closure of 57 state roads in PennDOT’s District 9, according to district spokeswoman Tara Callahan-Henry.

Lots of local roads were also closed, said Taylor, county emergency management director.

Despite recent attempts at education, not everyone obeys the barriers installed to mark such closures.

“People drive around barriers,” Cubbison said.

Most times they get through, but not always.

That puts first responders at risk, Cubbison said. “It does not have to happen,” he said. “People really need not to be so self-centered.”

There were two cases in Bedford County where motorists who skirted barriers, stalled their vehicles and began drifting, Cubbison said.

Firefighters got them out.

Cars can begin floating in as little as 1 foot of water, said Williamsburg Area Volunteer Fire Department Chief Ted Hyle. Moreover, what looks to be a shallow sheet of water can be much deeper, if the road is washed away underneath, he said.

“If you can’t see the roadway, you have no idea,” Hyle said. “There could be no road.”

“Water makes people crazy,” said Hyle, whose company was called to assist a stranded motorist over the weekend.

Previously this summer …

In Duncansville, Seventh Avenue resident Dan Malone was watching and wondering last weekend as the rain came down. It turned out that he only got 6 inches of water in his basement, water that came in through the drains. That was a problem that would have upset most people, but for him, it seemed like a reprieve, because within the past 2.5 months, he’d twice had 4 feet of water in his basement.

It was a finished space, a den for him and his sons, with carpet and a big-screen TV — along with the house utility equipment.

On July 2, after a downpour, water overflowed the banks of a nearby creek upstream from the house and ran down an alley in back, from which it flowed down a steep driveway to his garage door and an adjacent door to the basement.

So Malone took a month off from work, cleared out the basement, removed the lower 4 feet of drywall and replaced it.

Shortly after completing that task, on Aug. 3, it happened again, the water rising to almost precisely the same level.

He lost all his clothing and lots of family mementos, and he’s had to replace his hot water tank — twice — and the furnace, washer and dryer.

He’s filled five dumpsters.

The losses have been between $20,000 and $30,000.

He had no flood insurance, so he’s taken out loans.

After the second flood, he installed a 2-foot high gravel berm at the top of the driveway and made plans to block in the doors, sealing off the basement.

The basement is currently in disarray, with the bottom half of the drywall again removed and other repairs partially finished.

He seemed cheerful enough, however, as he held his young son in his arms.

He also looked beyond his own problems, having heard the news reports about the latest Atlantic hurricane, Florence.

“Look at the people down in North Carolina,” he said.

Insurance

This summer’s flooding has generated numerous National Flood Insurance Program claims for Tammy Kehr’s State Farm Insurance Agency, according to Kehr.

The program covers damage from water that comes in through or along the ground — whereas most good regular homeowner policies only cover flooding damage from water that comes in through the roof or a window opening — water that has never “hit the ground,” Kehr said.

There’s an exception to that rule, based on a special “endorsement” available in Pennsylvania called backup drain and sewer coverage that can be added to a homeowner policy to provide coverage of $5,000, $10,000 or $15,000, Kehr said.

It can cover losses to furnaces, hot water tanks, washers, dryers and freezers, she said.

It’s not as good as the NFIP coverage, which is available to everyone, not just those who live in flood-prone areas, she said.

The NFIP is subsidized, but the federal government is in the process of transitioning away from the subsidy, so rates are rising, she said.

Homeowners with mortgages are normally required by their lenders to buy NFIP policies that at least cover the loan amounts, to protect the lender’s collateral, and sometimes full replacement costs, to ensure the homeowner can rebuild, Kehr said.

Most agents recommend buying 100-percent replacement coverage, she said.

Based on calls and claims, the flooding in July and August was concentrated in the Duncansville and Hollidaysburg areas, she said.

Last weekend’s problems were more widespread, she said.

While this weekend was to have been dry, Monday or Tuesday most likely will not be, according to Ross, the meteorologist.

The track of Florence was uncertain, he said, “But worth paying close attention to, given how wet things are now.”

By late Friday, the National Weather Service predicted that Florence could dump several inches of rain Monday as it moves across Pennsylvania from southwest to northeast. Higher rainfall amounts are possible. Wind gusts could reach 30 mph.

Weather service meteorologist Paul Head in State College said most of the storm’s impact will be felt in the north and west. He said there could be some small-stream flooding, but rivers are expected to stay within their banks.

The storm is expected to leave Pennsylvania on Tuesday.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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