Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

September 30, 2004

Local Floods Give GSPIA Prof, Students Real Disaster eExperience

As trailer-loads of bleach, brooms and garbage bags pour into the Red Cross station in Etna, Pitt professor of public and urban affairs, Louise Comfort sits in front of Emmanuel Lutheran Church and barely notices a fire truck with sirens in full-scream charging up Butler Street en route to Shaler. Just another event in a parade of daily emergencies in Etna on Sunday, a little more than a week after the region’s biggest rainfall caused widespread flooding in western Pennsylvania.

Flood recovery is still in full swing in the hardest hit communities such as Etna. Residents continue to remove debris, but some are ahead of the game by now, squirting mud off their sidewalks. Backhoes and other heavy machinery scrape the roads of mud that has baked to a hard crust after days of curing in the sun. Dust, supplies and people abound at the Red Cross station where one of Comfort’s graduate students is tallying the toll of what has been lost in some 856 homes in Etna (the highest total in Allegheny County) damaged in the Sept.17 flood.

Comfort seems nonplused by the commotion. A master of disaster, she has studied earthquakes and floods the world for 22 years. This Sunday, she smiles as she meets with one of her students, Rob Skertich, who is studying the disaster under her direction and who also is a manager for the Red Cross.

Ah, the problems of hydrology, landscapes and living in a beautiful place that floods. “There are economic trade-offs,” she says. “If you rebuild, you need to know what your risks are.” When Comfort arrived in Pittsburgh in 1984, she was taken aback that four federally-declared disasters occurred in the state within two years. One of those disasters was the 1986 flood in Etna and Shaler that claimed the lives of eight people. She studied that flood, noting that the Etna/Shaler storm management plan, initially designed in 1979 and completed either the day before or day of the flood, was out of date. The plan didn’t consider how the housing and commercial development in the suburbs created new problems in the watersheds draining into Shaler and Etna, she said. So to Comfort, amassing information and getting it into the hands of the community and other stakeholders, can save lives, at the very least.

“Even if a place floods every 10 to 20 years, public policy means you tell the story, you tell the truth, you tell the public what they face in the long term.”

Comfort gazes down the street where the Blarney Stone restaurant sits. An icon of the flood, the restaurant was up to its ears in a muddy moat as rescuers on personal watercraft whizzed by the television cameras. “The Blarney Stone may be a great restaurant, but it’s badly located,” she says. “Setting up a business somewhere else — that’s hard to accept. You can’t stop the rains, but you can move away from the flood zones. However, people keep moving back into them.” Figuring out the risks of redeveloping in a flood-prone community – a dilemma faced by many of the region’s river towns — is exactly what Comfort and her students want to do. And to make such decisions more informed, Comfort wants to build a common knowledge base among public, private and non-profit groups to help plan the futures of Millvale, Etna and other communities.

Once the information on, say, how water drains through Little Pine Creek, one of the contributors to the flood in Etna, is integrated with information on flood frequency and precise locations, government officials, community planners and the public can decide what to do. Comfort wants a homeowner to have the ability to go on the Internet and pull up historical information on floods and other important issues related to living in an area prone to disaster. “The most difficult thing is if people don’t know. Through careful analysis of cost and frequency of disasters, they can make their choices.”

Comfort is interested in the flow of information for decision making: Information from Etna compiled with information from Allegheny County, Pittsburgh, southwestern Pennsylvania and so on. “There are layers of authority – many fragmented — managing information. One of things not articulated very well are the responsibilities of these authorities.” For example, the City of Pittsburgh engineers know about drainage in the region. They need to be communicating that information to the planning commissions in small communities and private developers, Comfort said.

To bring vital information home to communities, Comfort wants to apply her computer and management system to the flood areas of Pittsburgh, particularly Etna, Millvale, Oakmont, and some other communities. Her system, IISIS (Interactive Intelligent Spatial Information System) features computer software that networks local, regional and national decision-makers. The system is two-pronged: It comes up with real-time solutions to coordinate all the federal, state, local and non-profit agencies operations during a disaster. Then the system also integrates information from all those major sources for community planning. Information culled by Comfort’s graduate students working in some of the flooded communities in Pittsburgh will be fed into ISIS. “We want to prepare an IISIS demonstration showing how it could be used for planning by separate municipalities, by the county and by the region,” she said. Comfort anticipates that the program will be developed during the next four or five months.

Recovering from a disaster of the magnitude of the September flood falls under the purview of public policy, Comfort says. The better coordinated the information, she says, the better decisions are made. She also said an educational institution such as Pitt should be involved in helping the region work on such a project.

Skertich, one of Comfort’s students, is looking at public policy as it impacts the ability to recover in Etna and other communities. As the Red Cross director of operations for the southwestern Pennsylvania, Skertich has visited and worked in flood sites throughout the region. Currently, efforts are still concentrated on emergency response. “We’re not looking at recovery yet,” he said. “People are still cleaning their houses.”

He plans to track how people recover and where they go during the next year. For flood victims in the Etna area, he says, “There’s a good number of properties available to rent or buy, but can people afford to get these alternative properties? Can the elderly afford to move from their support system?”

He will also follow what becomes of families who lived in 391 homes that were destroyed in the Pittsburgh and surrounding areas. But for now, he moves shipment of water and other supplies from his truck into the Red Cross station.

Another one of Comfort’s students, David Johnson, also is getting some real-life experience for his dissertation on the relationship between the geology and hydrology of a flood area and organizational practices and information flow among local first response agencies for a flood. He manages the GPS system for Allegheny County.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 37 Issue 3

Leave a Reply