State leaders assess flood damage
By Joseph Bell
RIDGWAY – Lieutenant Governor Jim Cawley, Pa. Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) and state Representative Matt Gabler (R-Clearfield/Elk) were in town Tuesday morning and into the early afternoon to assess the flood damage that ravaged Ridgway last week.
Ridgway Borough Manager Kim Zimmerman and Ray Imhof, emergency coordinator for both Ridgway Borough and Township, and assistant fire chief, spoke Tuesday morning of the severity of the disaster during an emergency briefing downtown.
The state leaders then were transported by an Elk County Emergency Services van to residences and businesses along Penn Avenue where they met with several property and business owners.
"I’ve seen this sort of thing firsthand in other places, including my own hometown as we had something very similar back in 1996," said Cawley, who arrived via State Police helicopter after taking in an aerial view of the damage. "I know a lot of lives have been disrupted and we have to get everyone back to a place where they can resume a normal life. I’m up here because Joe Scarnati and Matt Gabler asked me to come and the governor [Tom Corbett] is very interested in what I find here, and I know we’re going to have to find ways to help these folks either by making whatever resources we have available, and I know within a few days the governor will be asking the federal government to be able to let folks here apply for Small Business Administration loans, both for homes and businesses so that they can get the money they need in order to get back to resuming a normal life.
"That’s job No. 1 for us but the good news again is that thanks once again to our great first responders, there’s no loss of life or significant injury. The bad news is still that a lot of good folks out there are still hurting and we’re here [Tuesday] to let them know that we care and we’re going to work with them to do whatever is needed to help them get their lives back in order."
Cawley arrived by helicopter at roughly 10:50 a.m. and departed shortly after 12 p.m. The chopper landed at and took off from the Ridgway Firemen's Carnival Grounds, an area that a week ago today was fully submerged in floodwaters.
The Clarion River reportedly reached 21.7 feet last Wednesday; the highest recorded level was July 19, 1964 when it topped out at 23.1 feet.
According to Mike McAllister, director of Elk County's Office of Emergency Services, members of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency [PEMA] on Tuesday submitted their findings to the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA].
"The state took their information and submitted it all with the numbers from minor damage, moderate and major," McAllister said. "The state will be waiting to hear back from FEMA with the numbers and hopefully we’ll be seeing them in the very near future with FEMA coming in and doing their site visit to see if their numbers match, and we’ll go from there."
The only thing PEMA officials can do regarding funding is submit their findings to FEMA.
"PEMA will usually keep looking and continue to look until they get enough numbers to send to FEMA," McAllister said. "They’re not going to send things to FEMA if they know there isn’t enough there to work with. Usually if PEMA has to come in, they’re not going to waste FEMA’s time if they know the numbers aren’t there for them to make it worthwhile to come in and take a look."
While no concrete figures were immediately available Tuesday, damage assessment must reach a certain monetary level in accordance with population, displacement, and number of businesses and residences affected.
McAllister said PEMA officials should know FEMA's intentions for a walkthrough within the next few days.
"Once they come in, all FEMA has to do is match up the numbers with their own assessments," McAllister said. "If they’re going down Main Street and see that the damages are matching what PEMA reports, once they hit their matching number they’re going to go home.
"It won’t be too long after that, FEMA will come in and set up a DLOC [Disaster Loan Outreach Center], and people will be able to come in and talk with FEMA about low-interest loans and what they can offer."
The first step in funding is reportedly the Small Business Administration loans.
"Then we continue to provide information to FEMA and there is a whole other application process for individual assistance, and the municipalities have their own forms and documentation requirements that they have to meet," McAllister said. "Each type of procedure has its own criteria."
Being a next door neighbor to Elk County, Scarnati said he was "not a stranger to the problems that took place" and was upset as he viewed the damage firsthand, first by a photographic slideshow during the emergency briefing which showed the extent of the flood damage as it happened, and later as the state leaders spoke with area residents affected by the disaster.
"It’s clearly a huge loss of infrastructure and personal property and business loss, and I know the governor’s office is working on some declarations that will be made soon, and we really need dollars to help this community," he said.
At the peak of the floodwater levels, water was up to the base of some windows in buildings in the west end of town. A traffic control box for the lights and railroad at the corner of West Main Street and Montmorenci Road was more than half covered, and filled with water after floodwaters receded.
One of the more damaged residential areas was Penn Avenue, a roadway that runs parallel to the Clarion River. The state leaders spent a good portion of their time in town visiting with residents there, including Noel Feronti of 21 Penn Ave. Feronti's residence sustained severe damage to the basement and first floor, as did most Penn Avenue residences situated in close proximity with the river.
Shane Williamson, another Penn Avenue resident, said his entire basement was flooded in addition to at least four feet of water on the first floor.
Cawley indicated Tuesday that his office will be in touch with the Army Corps of Engineers concerning the East Branch Dam and whether or not the dam played any role in the floodwaters.
Tanner Street, which intersects with Main Street between Country Squirrel Outfitters and the back end of Rite Aid, also sustained considerable damage.
The disaster shut down many Ridgway bridges for upwards of 10 hours last Wednesday, and Ridgway mayor Dr. Guillermo Udarbe declared a state of emergency. The county's 911 Center processed well over 1,000 non-emergency and 911 calls. Debris removal and basement pumping was still in full force Tuesday, and cleanup could take several weeks. People who have sustained property damage are asked to call 814-776-4601.
Officials on Tuesday reviewed several photographs showing the damage to the area, including a bridge on Tanner Street that spans Elk Creek.
"On Tanner Street the water was washing away the soil on both sides, and we lost some asphalt because of it," Zimmerman said. "Even the township sustained damage as a little tiny creek running up Grant Road was overflowing all over the place."
Zimmerman also showed the state leaders video clips of the floodwaters at H.B. Norton Dam at the end of Water Works Road. The floodwaters overwhelmed to the emergency spillway and destroyed a bridge near the dam.
As the cleanup efforts continue, emergency management officials are also keeping a sharp eye on damage assessment.
Another problem area is the embankment on Elk Creek behind Erie Avenue. Asphalt and bricks were damaged above the embankment and the materials are in danger of collapsing into Elk Creek, one of the tributaries feeding into the Clarion River.
Gallagher Run, another tributary feeding into the Clarion River, also caused issues during last Wednesday's flooding. This tributary runs down parallel to Boot Jack Road before zig-zagging through town under Main and North Broad Streets before spilling into the Clarion River.
Gallagher Run floodwaters caused issues for the Ridgway YMCA, the former armory building, and others during the disaster. Waters from Elk Creek and Gallagher Run converged on the borough street grid and flooded Allenhurst, Erie, Fremont, and Morgan Avenues, and Depot and Lafayette Streets.
This led to the evacuation of St. Leo Catholic School at the corner of Depot and Allenhurst.
Attendees on Tuesday included Cawley, Gabler, and Scarnati; Mark Adams from Scarnati's office and Fritz Lecker from Gabler's office; Elk County Commissioners Jan Kemmer and June Sorg; Ridgway Police Chief Ralph Tettis; Ridgway Township Supervisors John Gardner, Millie Bowers and Rick Glover; St. Marys Mayor Bob Howard and City Manager Dave Greene; Philip Barker, western area director for PEMA; Grace Jesberger, Pa. Republican State Committee representative for Elk County; Imhof and Zimmerman.
Congressman Glenn 'GT' Thompson (PA-5) attended an emergency briefing early Friday morning with emergency responders and government officials in Ridgway Borough's emergency operations center. He returned Saturday for a tour of the area and spoke with residents.
Gabler, who last week was overseas for NATO training exercises in France with the 28th Infantry Division of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, also joined in on Tuesday's emergency briefing.
"I had an idea of how bad the damage was but to be here and see people’s homes, and what people are doing, on one hand I understand how devastating it is but on the other hand I’m impressed with how much work has been done, and the resilience of the community," Gabler said. "We’re going to work our tails off to see if we can work together and pull the resources of the Commonwealth together and make them available. We had the whole crew here as you had the congressman, you had the lieutenant governor, you had the senator and the representative, and we’re going to keep on working together as a team to see what resources we can bring and go from there.
"This is similar in scope to what we saw in DuBois not too long ago and Ridgway certainly was the epicenter in this storm and damage, but we’re certainly aware of other damage around as well. We’re keeping our eyes on it and I encourage people to contact our office and contact emergency services throughout the area so that we can document everything. That’s the best way to get the assistance coming in."
A press release from FEMA, PEMA, and county government should be issued regarding possible funding, and the time and location for victims of the disaster to meet with FEMA officials.