Worst Rainfall in 150 Years Damages Pennsylvania Homes, Roads

This year is ahead of last year's pace, with 38.21 inches already, far above the normal rate of 24.18 inches. Records for the wettest 12-month period are being set each month, according to the weather service.

by Mike Urban, Reading Eagle, Pa. / July 29, 2019
Dave Bradbury delivers food from the Greater Berks Food Bank to the Port Carbon Borough Hall for the flood victims in Port Carbon, Pa., Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018. AP/JACQUELINE DORMER

(TNS) — As the rain dropped in torrents the night of June 19, Al Bino was inside his Spring Township home, hustling from window to window to watch the swollen creek spilling into his backyard.

Then Bino saw something he'd never seen in the 26 years he's lived on Wheatfield Road.

Water started pouring through his front door and into the home.

“It's happening,” he yelled to his wife, Deborah. “Water is coming in.”

Soon it was streaming in through every door in the house, and pushed in the double garage doors.

When the storm ended the next morning, the Binos were left with a wet, muddy mess throughout their home. Outside, a dozen of Deborah's hens had been washed away, their big coops swept somewhere toward the Cacoosing Creek.

While cleaning up, the couple thought about the severe storms now occurring more frequently and the toll they've taken on their home, and they made a decision.

“We have to leave here,” Deborah said. “It's like a wetlands now. And this house is toast.”

The Binos are like many in Berks, dealing with destruction from storms and worried that the drenching rains and flash floods that have repeatedly hit the region in the past year will keep coming.

According to the 150 years of data used by the National Weather Service, 2018 was the wettest year in Berks, with 68.08 inches of precipitation measured at Reading Regional Airport.

This year is ahead of last year's pace, with 38.21 inches already, far above the normal rate of 24.18 inches. Records for the wettest 12-month period are being set each month, according to the weather service.

With groundwater totals and waterways so high, the continued storms are having a cumulative effect, overflowing streams, damaging properties and putting lives at risk.

During a flash flood on July 11, Pamela V. Snyder, 31, and her son, Preston Dray, 9, of Boyertown, drowned after their car was swept into the Manatawny Creek in Douglass Township. Snyder was eight months pregnant with a daughter.

A new normal?

Municipalities throughout Berks have gotten hammered, with flooded basements and blocked roads increasingly common.

In December, a federal report called the National Climate Assessment warned about climate change and its disastrous impact on the United States. Among its predictions were that the Northeast would have more intense rain events and inland flooding, along with extreme temperatures, and it said some of those changes have already begun.

Some municipal officials say their infrastructure and stormwater management systems can't handle the amount of rain we're now receiving, and they are trying to figure out what type of improvements they can afford.

“I am very concerned,” said Nicholas Embesi, council president in West Reading, which is among the municipalities recently hit. “Our stormwater system wasn't designed for these type of rainfall events occurring time and time again.”

It's also a challenge for the volunteer fire department and emergency service crews to respond to calls when roads are flooded, he said.

“I really hope this weather isn't the new normal for our area,” he said.

Front-burner issue

While municipalities often plan infrastructure to withstand a 100-year-storm, those once-a-century events are now occurring two or three times a summer, and it's too much, said Cumru Township Manager Jeanne Johnston.

Municipalities must now think differently about stormwater design, zoning, development and emergency response, she said.

As more land is covered in macadam or built upon, it leaves less area for the rain to soak in, and increases stormwater damage, she said.

Property owners should know that their sheds, swimming pools, patios and driveways contribute to the problem, and understand that filling swales or cutting vegetation from stream banks also causes waterflow issues, she said.

Johnston anticipates municipalities will be trying to fit infrastructure improvements and storm-related repairs into upcoming budgets to account for the extra rainfall.

“Stormwater control has really moved to the front-burner for a lot of us,” she said.

90 inches in Spring Twp.

Spring Township Manager Jay Vaughn said his township's storm system was not built to handle as much rain as has fallen in the last year, which has contributed to numerous basements in the township flooding with raw sewage during storms.

In the last 12 months, the Lincoln Park section of the township received more than 90 inches of precipitation, doubling the normal amount, according to Jeffrey R. Stoudt, founder of the Berks Area Rainfall Network.

Most damaging are the storms in which several inches of rain fall in just a few hours, which has happened several times in the township in the last year, Vaughn said.

Those storms can leave the township crews scrambling for weeks as they fill in ruts, unclog drainage pipes, and fix other damage caused by the rain, leaving less time and money to fill potholes and resurface roads, he said.

The cleanup business

Servpro in Douglassville does water cleanup and restoration, and since last year has been swamped with calls from Berks and Schuylkill counties following storms.

In Berks this summer has been especially busy, said partner Cara Wilson. On June 20 and 21 alone, the company received over 200 calls from people with storm damage, she said.

What's most troubling is that many of her clients said they've lived in homes that hadn't had flooding for generations, but have now had it repeatedly in recent months due to the record rainfall.

“Before we have time to clean up the damage, they're getting hit again,” she said.

She encouraged property owners to review their insurance policies, which often don't cover flood damage, mold remediation or problems resulting from failed sump pumps, she said.

'People are suffering'

During the June 19 storm, Dan Rauenzahn of Summit Avenue in Cumru Township lost two vehicles parked at his home to flooding, just as he lost two vehicles during a 2017 storm.

During that time his basement has flooded, and he's lost a freezer, lawnmowers, family photos, and numerous other items not covered by insurance.

The alley behind Rauenzahn's home is like a bowl during heavy storms, filling with several feet of rainwater that spreads into homes.

During one storm, his neighbors came home to find their basement flooded, with their dogs drowned in the crates they'd left them in for the day.

“During the last storm it looked like a whitewater rapids back there,” Rauenzahn said.

The Cumru supervisors have directed their engineer to study the issue, but the township doesn't own the alley, and Johnston doesn't anticipate an easy solution.

While Rauenzahn would like to move elsewhere in the township, he can't afford to without selling his home, and its value has steadily decreased due to water damage, he said.

“This isn't just an engineering issue; it's a human issue,” he said. “People are suffering. I can't get out from under this.”

So each time he's at work and sees a forecast of heavy rain at home, he worries that his wife and their two children could be hurt or even drown in a flash flood. And he believes things will only get worse as climate change leads to more severe storms.

“Whether you think global warming is cyclical or you think we're causing it, it's a real thing,” he said. “And it's not going anywhere.”

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