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The Pittsburgh Urban Flooding Journal’s First Blog Post – The History of Overcoming Pittsburgh’s Flooding Challenges

We are faced with a flooding epidemic in the Pittsburgh region.

When can we start to get serious about developing a regionally based remedy?

If not now, when?

To its earliest settlers, Allegheny County’s three rivers and its numerous tributary streams, natural springs and runs were the cornerstone for settlement. They served as a constant reliable source for farming. Later they would serve as a constant reliable source for transporting the region’s vast coal resources that would go on to fuel the growth of our newly industrialized nation and world. Today the region’s water resources are an economic engine creating $5 billion dollars in direct economic activity and are the lifeblood of the $13.7 billion dollar energy industry according to a report from Carnegie Mellon University. The abundance of water is undoubtedly a positive benefit to the region. But as the idiom goes there are two sides to every coin.  

According to the national weather service, in 2018 Allegheny County experienced the most rainfall ever recorded in a single calendar year. Midway through 2019 Allegheny County is on pace to shatter the 2018 all-time record. Two years in a row Pittsburgh is facing the most unprecedented rainfall totals in its history. Over the past year and a half our region’s abundance of water has been more than any of us ever wanted. News reports have been a near constant stream (no pun intended) of localized flooding stories. The flooding has become so frequent that it became running joke on Twitter that Pittsburgh made it a whole single day without a localized flood. In the vein of your classic workplace safety sign, the joke contained a photoshopped image of a giant billboard on the cliff-side of Mt. Washington stating: “01 Days Without Localized Flooding.” Shortly thereafter the number flips back to “00” with the 1 tumbling down off the Mt. Washington cliff-side.  

While some of us may find a photoshopped image on Twitter helpful comedic stress reliever, we can likely assume that the people’s lives directly impacted by repeated flooding do not and likely live with continual emotional stress in constant fear of the next severe rain storm. 

Localized flash flooding in the Pittsburgh region is a serious epidemic and chronic illness. And its citizens are subject to all of the side effects and symptoms. It will take the entire region to come together to develop a cure. 

In response to these repeated events, we’ve decided to take it upon ourselves to chronicle every flooding event as they occur using interactive webmaps on this blog and we will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Every flooding event will be documented on the archives page, which will be continually updated. As many of the pictures and videos show, these are dangerous and life threatening events. In many of the videos, streets are filling with water from overtaxed drainage systems. Vehicles are being swept away by flood waters. Homes and businesses are being inundated and ransacked by high water, debris, and mud. In some events, people are being rescued from their cars and homes by emergency responders. Tragically, people’s lives have been lost in recent years due to flash flooding. 

All told, the damage to property are likely in the tens of millions. This doesn’t include harder to quantify costs such as personal stress and trauma caused to victims, cleanup and repair costs, hospital bills, missed days from work, cost for emergency personnel, and the like. Nor does it take into account landslides due to saturated ground due to saturated soils.

While 2018 and 2019 have been bad years for flooding, all hope should not be lost for the future. We should not give up finding ways to mitigate flooding to our region. Addressing flooding issues is nothing new to the Pittsburgh region. Our ancestors have had a long history of rolling up their sleeves and finding ways to solve grand challenges.

The history of tackling Pittsburgh’s flooding problems can be traced back to the early 1900s. At the turn of the twentieth century the three rivers were regular source of devastating flooding and near misses. During this era flood waters regularly over-topped the river banks and flooded downtown businesses and industry along the shorelines upstream and downstream. Flooding became so bad and disruptive to business and industry that the Flood Commission of Pittsburgh was established with the first president of commission being none other than Howard J. Heinz, president of the H.J. Heinz Company.

The commission primarily consisted of the region’s foremost businessmen, engineers, and other esteemed professionals and would later expand to include city and county elected officials. As stated in their 1911 report “Safeguarding Pittsburgh from Floods”, their objective was to “carefully investigate and determine upon plans to protect Pittsburgh from floods and the damage resulting therefrom.”     

At its core, the Flood Commission of Pittsburgh (which would later be renamed the Citizens’ Committee on Flood Control) was a citizen backed grass roots effort championed by elite local business leaders. They would eventually expand to include 400 additional flood control committees across several counties in the Pennsylvania-West Virginia-Ohio tri-state area. The collective efforts of prominent business leaders and the general public ultimately led to the United States Army Corps of Engineers constructing flood control reservoirs upstream of Pittsburgh.

Still today, the dams and reservoirs are modern engineering marvels of human might that were constructed to address a decades long problem. The ultimate vision and construction of the dams were a grand challenge overcome by the ancestors that laid the foundation for our region’s prosperity. To get the reservoirs approved by Congress, the commission overcame the great depression, two world wars, and various political obstacles at both the state and federal levels. All told there are now 13 flood protection reservoirs upstream of the point at Pittsburgh including the mammoth Allegheny Reservoir and Kinzua Dam, one of the largest dams east of the Mississippi River.

The construction of the 13 flood control dams fulfilled the original vision of the commission several decades prior. Well actually, the original flood commission recommended 17 reservoirs upstream of Pittsburgh, but who’s counting after literally hundreds of millions of dollars spent? The dramatic story of Pittsburgh’s early 20th century flood control movement is wonderfully depicted in “The Politics of Pittsburgh Flood Control, 1908-1936” and “The Politics of Pittsburgh Flood Control, 1936-1960” both authored by Roland M. Smith of Carnegie Mellon University.    

The authors of this blog retell this story to inspire us to take on today’s grand challenge with respect to Pittsburgh flooding. We need to start tackling localized flash flooding together as a collective region. Individual municipalities cannot do it alone as rain that falls within our watersheds does not follow municipal boundaries. We believe we can do this. However, we need leadership who are passionate and knowledgeable about the issue, we need political backing and support, we need community organizations and the public at large to support the mission. We need to establish another Flood Commission, this time the Flood Commission of Allegheny County, that is willing to carry the torch and listen to the public and answer their tough questions. We need to establish a funding mechanism and allow for public oversight of those funds so that they are clear, transparent, and equitable to all people in the county. We need to develop partnerships and working relationships with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the United States Army Corps of Engineers so that flood mitigation projects get constructed and receive federal backing and grant assistance. We need to better understand how flooding behaves within our watersheds and where projects will be most beneficial utilizing previously conducted and on-going studies to inform their placement. After a regional project is constructed we need a responsible regional flood control agency that will be charged with ensuring the on-going maintenance and upkeep of the project.

It should be mentioned that there are several agencies and municipalities in Allegheny County that are doing fine work attempting to address flooding as best as they can within their own individual communities. We applaud these communities, however they cannot be in the minority in this effort.

If we are to address flooding it will require regional and countywide coordination that is focused on watershed boundaries and not political boundaries.

Elsewhere across the nation countywide publicly backed initiatives to address flooding have been established with great success. Some of these places include: Seattle, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Phoenix, and Portland. They’ve all put aside their individual political differences and have taken on a grand challenge for making their communities a better place to live. 

So why not Allegheny County and Pittsburgh? Furthermore why not all counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania that are negatively impacted by flooding? As past history shows, finding answers to the county’s localized flooding won’t be easy. The planning and construction of flood mitigation projects may take several decades, but we have to start somewhere. It’s a grand challenge but also a grand opportunity to make our region a better place for everyone.  If we are to begin to address this regional epidemic it will require everyone in this region to come together and buy into the cure.

The cure begins with the re-establishment of a regional flood commission tasked to take on this grand challenge. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get started, just like this region’s ancestors.

Join the Conversation

5 Comments

  1. Very informative and thorough. I pray that someone, a recognized leaser in the community run with this idea with enough passion and bravado to being it to fruition. Someday, maybe, you can be that person?

    Like

  2. Very informative post, I’m glad I came across this one. The changing climate is indeed causing difficulties, we thought the current infrastructure would last at least 25 years more; but it seems we need to plan for the next 50 years. The crisis may have begun from Pittsburgh, but it’ll be across the globe in no time.

    Like

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