Over the weekend, social media and local news were filled with images of flooding that have become sadly common over the course of 2018.
Severe rain showers last weekend led to landslides and flooding in several parts of the Pittsburgh region. The storm shut down roads, forced the evacuation of several homes and appears to have caused a methane gas explosion in Beaver County. As Hurricane Florence barrels toward North Carolina, the entire mid-Atlantic region is bracing for more rain on Thursday.
This comes only months after landslides damaged dozens of Pittsburgh neighborhoods and shut down Route 30 in April.
The weather in recent days has been so severe that the Allegheny County Emergency Services declined to comment for this story, saying “We’re still in the midst of response.”
We’re not new to landslides, of course. Southwestern Pennsylvania is the one area in the state at high risk for this type of disaster, due to our steep hillsides. But an abnormally rainy 2018 has turned a manageable public works issue into a full-blown crisis with no clear solution.
“When you hit your annual average rainfall for a year in September, that means it’s wet,” says Daniel Bain, assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who studies sustainable water systems at Pitt’s Collaboratory for Water Research, Education, and Outreach.
He tells us that the ideal way to prevent these disasters is to invest heavily in prevention. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh, like many cities, built much of its infrastructure decades ago, he says, “during drier times when flooding and landslide resilience was not considered a priority.”
Where does that leave us?
“If prevention is not possible, you have a wretched consideration between basically buying out all properties in a substantial portion of a community or laying out large chunks of operating funds and/or private funds to build elaborate drainage infrastructure to lower (but not eliminate) future risk,” says Bain.
“Without unlimited funds,” he says, “that becomes excruciating very quickly.”
Municipal offices are already feeling the crunch. Speaking to the media in April of this year, Mayor Bill Peduto said that the city had already spent five times its annual disaster budget. The budget shortfall may soon force citizens and city politicians alike to make difficult decisions. How will our vertically-built city, a place with hillsides so steep that some neighborhoods were built with towering cement staircases to make them navigable, cope with a climate that’s bringing this much rain?
As experts grapple with that question, the team at Pitt says that small steps can be taken to reduce harm.
“Integration of multiple disciplines and perspectives is possibly the best way to move forward,” says Dr. Brian Thomas, a member of the Collaboratory team. That means things like upgrading the many aged, leaking pipes and sewers that “silently contribute” to moisture in the ground.
In addition, Thomas and Bain say that any and all new construction projects must be designed with careful consideration of how much they can exacerbate flooding and soil erosion.
And, they say, some solutions exist outside the realm of engineering, such as introducing vegetation into hillsides that will take root and strengthen the soil.
While he did not promote any easy fixes, Thomas also sees potential in Pittsburgh collaborating with other cities facing similar problems. Pittsburgh, he says, is hardly alone in the struggle against severe weather and a rapidly changing climate.
“Many parts of the world are fighting the same challenges as we’ve experienced,” Thomas says. “We need to understand what worked in other parts of the world and develop a plan that works for all the residents of the city.”