ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Angry Allentown residents are blaming the city for late August flooding that damaged homes and destroyed dozens of cars in their West End neighborhoods.
During a two-hour meeting in City Hall Thursday night, several of them accused the city of negligence.
They said the city has known about the need to improve storm sewers in that part of town for nearly 30 years but has done nothing, while residents have faced "flood after flood after flood."
They want the city to fix the stormwater sewer system to stop the flooding. Based on responses by city officials, any fix probably is well over a year away.
"The city has been negligent in taking care of this," declared Gail Tannenbaum, who lives at 22nd and Allen streets. "This is not a natural disaster. This is not environmental. This is the city not taking care of the drainage. This is negligence."
"Don't sit here and tell us that you have no responsibility," said Atty. Don Klein, whose office is at 19th and Allen streets. "You have all the responsibility.
"You don't have immunity if you're negligent. And you've been negligent for 30 years. It could have been fixed. I'm sure plenty of attorneys will take this case and I think they're going to win."
Another man in the audience stood to advise officials: "It's always a lot cheaper to fix it before the lawsuit than after the lawsuit, because you've got to fix it anyway."
Many residents said they face many thousands of dollars in uninsured damage to their homes and garages from the Aug. 29 flooding.
"We lost 43 cars just in our little section of the West End," reported Tannenbaum.
Residents reported garbage, dumpsters and even empty cars floating down streets.
Cars were coming down 22nd Street from Liberty Street "like a flume," said one. "Almost every street was flooded," said another.
Residents talked about water being up to their calves, even up to their belts, and completely submerging cars. One woman said a child was saved from being washed away in the flood.
Some said it was the third damaging flood they've faced in just three years.
The impacted neighborhoods are not in low-lying flood-prone areas along streams; but they are down slope from Chew Street to the south.
Near the end of the meeting, city officials said a new hydrology study, which could take up to one year to complete, must be done before any work is done to end the problem. That study will identify specific projects, said Richard Young, the city's public works director.
"I don't know that they presented a solution," said Stein after the meeting, "but I'd like to believe that they will. They did say that they're going to do something."
Tannenbaum said she was satisfied with the city's response, but added: "We'll see if they do act. I'm not going to let go. I'm going to follow up and follow up. I don't care about the report. I want the action after the report."
At the beginning of the meeting, Tannenbaum took issue with a city news release that stated Mayor Ed Pawlowski agreed to organize Thursday night's forum because he wants citizens to be heard.
"I organized this forum," she declared. "I went down to the mayor's office and I made this happen."
She was applauded.
Pawlowski was not at the meeting. Klein criticized the mayor for telling people to go to the meeting, but he didn't attend it.
Tannenbaum estimated about 40 people attended. She hoped many more would be there.
She handed out 550 flyers about the meeting to residents and businesses from 23rd and Liberty streets down to 17th and Tilghman streets.
She said the Aug. 29 flood waters crossed Tilghman Street and ran down to Sumner Avenue. She said she talked to people at every business from 18th to 6th streets on Sumner Avenue, adding: "All but three got flooded."
Residents want compensation
"There's no way to stop this type of natural disaster," said Tim Duncan, the city's risk manager. He recommended people prepare by insuring their properties.
Residents complained flood insurance is prohibitively expensive, almost impossible to get and does not cover damage to basements.
Some maintained the city should pay them retribution for their losses.
"We want to be compensated," said Sharon Reyes of the 500 block of N. 18th Street. "We deserve to be compensated. And the City of Allentown should take responsibility."
Duncan said it's a common misconception that local government is responsible and should pay for damages. "Since the city cannot provide financial assistance, it is important for you as a homeowner and business owner to be properly prepared."
How much rain?
Young reported that a total 3.69 inches of rain usually falls during the entire month of August. But he said this year more than four inches of rain fell just on Aug. 28-29.
Young said those amounts were recorded at Lehigh Valley International Airport. He believes much more rain fell in the West End and center city. The storms that hit two weeks ago were localized and variable, said Young. "A lot of areas got hit hard, some areas hardly at all."
It was raining so hard that night that you could not see a few feet in front of you, said one West End resident. She reported more than 12 inches of rainwater were measured in a large empty trash bin after the storm.
Nationwide, said Young, stormwater sewer systems in residential areas of cities are designed for 10-year storms – meaning the kind of big storm that only comes along once every 10 years. He added: "If this area was hit with 12 inches of rain, that exceeded the 100-year storm."
Storm water systems are not designed to handle all storms, such as the torrential downpours described by residents, explained Craig Messinger, deputy public works director.
But residents said something is wrong with that system when floods occur over and over in the same area of the city.
Bottlenecks in the storm sewer system?
Tannenbaum said the city developed a plan to fix the sewers in that area in January 1985. Stein named several improvements that were recommended in that plan but never made.
Tannenbaum indicated there are at least two major bottlenecks, where storm water flows from larger pipes into small pipes, which causes it to back up on streets and worsens flooding.
One problem area was identified as sewer pipes running for three blocks from 21st and Allen to 18th and Allen.
Another is three blocks of Andrew Street, where 78-inch diameter sewer pipe runs underground. Upstream and downstream from that section are rectangular drains, called box culverts, that are six feet high and eight feet wide.
Those storm sewer lines were installed in the late 1920s, said Young after the meeting, adding he doesn't know why that section is different.
Manuel Quintana, who lives in the 2100 block of W.Allen Street, said that night he tried waving down three police cars to help direct traffic congestion caused by people rushing through the rain to leave Allentown Fair on flooded streets. He said he made eye contact with all of those police officers, but they kept going. "So I stood in the middle of the street, directing traffic."
Other neighbors shoveled tightly-packed trash off storm sewer grates so water could recede.
Fire Chief Robert Scheirer assured residents that city fire trucks are designed to go through a couple of feet of water, but not through four feet of water.
However, Scheirer said those trucks carry enough hose to fight a fire by getting as close as they can and fire fighters then dragging hoses. He said the fire department responded to nearly 30 calls in the West End that night. "I can assure you if there was a fire that evening, we would put it out. We are there to take care of you. And we took care of many people that evening."
The chief said he had water damage at his own property. "I know exactly how you feel because I'm in the same situation. The insurance isn't covering any of my damage as well."
The meeting was moderated by Francis Dougherty, the city's managing director.
Although the eight city administrators seated at the front of the room were introduced by Dougherty, several people in the audience seemed to think they were addressing City Council. More than one assumed they had been elected to their positions. One man even said taxpayers had voted them in.
Some residents just shouted out comments from their seats, rather than following Dougherty's suggestion that they go to the podium to speak.
For several minutes, the meeting disintegrated into residents arguing with each other.
The men at the front of the room were silent for much of the meeting, rather than engaging residents in debate.
But Klein accused most of them of having "disgraceful" looks on their faces when people spoke. He said only Fire Chief Scheirer seemed to recognize there is a problem.
Responding, Scheirer asked the audience to "please, stop making us the enemy. We're not. We're here to listen to you and we're here to try to address the problem."
Ironically, heavy rain was falling over Allentown just before the meeting began. One woman asked: "Are we going to go home and find out homes flooded again?"
Another said she was moving because she no longer can stand living in fear every time it rains.
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