Samantha Sharp was home alone in her Middletown home when floodwaters came through the windows and started filling her basement.
It was 2011 and Tropical Storm Lee was sweeping through Pennsylvania.
“I called my dad in a panic. I’m like, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I can’t get him to stop coming in,” Sharp said.
When Sharp’s mother, Deb Sharp, returned home from work that day, she remembers walking in knee-deep water to get home.
The basement had been a relaxation area, with a pool table and a kitchenette. It also housed the house’s circuit breaker, furnace, water heater, and served as storage for holiday decorations and family heirlooms.
All of this had to be discarded or replaced.
Because Tropical Storm Lee was declared a disaster by then-President Barack Obama, the Sharps got some help replacing their furnace. But they had no flood insurance. Their home is located away from the Susquehanna River and Swatara Creek, outside of the historic floodplain.
Climate change is expected to make Pennsylvania warmer and wetter, with more intense gusty rain. Because of this, floodwaters are now appearing outside federally designated flood zones. It will be up to the communities to determine how to respond.
After 2011, the Sharps moved the circuit breaker upstairs, installed sump pumps, and cleaned up the basement.
“I really didn’t think it was going to happen again. I thought it was just a weird thing,” Deb Sharp said. “I don’t think about that anymore.”
In 2017, another storm dropped over 4 inches of rain on Middletown in about an hour. Water seeped from the walls and floor of the basement, then backed up through the family’s sump pumps when the borough’s storm drains were overwhelmed. The Sharps’ basement filled like a bathtub.
“And I thought, that’s it. We’re gonna lose everything, you know? said Deb Sharp.
In a video Samantha took at the time, brown water covers the front yard. The street looks like a river.
The 2017 storm was not named and the damage it caused did not warrant a disaster declaration. But he left his mark.
The water pipes are still visible on the stairs leading to the basement, a few inches from the first floor of the house.
Samantha remembers carrying her then 3-year-old son, crying and shaking, through the water to a relative’s house. The whole family now gets angry every time it rains.
Deb Sharp didn’t even think about flooding when she and her husband bought the cottage-style home in 1996.
But now she is not sure if she can stay and continue to live during the floods. She said she couldn’t afford to move and wasn’t even sure anyone else would buy it after the recent floods.
“It was our house, and that’s not fair. So I don’t know what to do. I’m really taken,” she said.
Intense storms that cause flash flooding are likely to become more frequent in Pennsylvania with climate change, and they occur outside of historic floodplains.
Legacy infrastructure can make the problem worse – and in some cases it hides even more problems.
Penn State Harrisburg researchers are trying to understand all the factors behind this.
After the 2017 flood, the borough asked Shirley Clark, a professor of environmental engineering at Penn State Harrisburg, to help identify the issues.
She started with records at the Pennsylvania State Museum, where she discovered a forgotten, buried creek that was diverted in storm sewer pipes and paved over between the 1930s and 1950s. It doesn’t appear on modern maps.
Clark thinks the creek probably runs near the Sharps’ house.
This stream is Bloody Run, presumably named after the Slaughterhouses that were next to it.
Bloody Run begins north of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and runs roughly where Middletown’s Spruce Street is now. It is briefly visible between Oak Hills Park and East High Street before disappearing underground again.
Many cities have similar buried streams, including Harrisburg, Lancaster, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Somewhere in their history, city planners decided that waterways were a nuisance or thought they should be replaced with building land.
Clark and his students are now trying to understand the relationship between forgotten streams, precipitation rates, soil moisture, and flooding.
“And that’s an area that we just don’t have enough information about, except that we know it’s a problem in areas known as environmental justice zones,” she said. declared.
Understand the problem
But the thing about water – the harder you try to squeeze it, the faster it runs out of your hand.
“We don’t understand that – you’re putting more water into the stream from the stream itself, you’re putting more water on the ground, raising the water table, you’re putting compaction, and you’re basically creating a bowl very shallow that needs to hold water,” Clark said. “And that water is going to flow somewhere. And the longer it flows, the easier it’s going to find the easiest place to go.
Clark’s work in Middletown is funded by the Pennsylvania Sea Grant Program. His team will collect and review data such as soil compaction and water infiltration rates in different areas of the borough. But a second phase of the project will focus on information such as the stress caused by repeated flooding for residents of Middletown.
Qualifying for federal disaster assistance is a complicated process. Damage costs must reach a certain amount per capita for people to get help. A state’s governor must request a disaster declaration from the president and show that the damage exceeds the ability of the state alone to respond.
Floods that only hit a small area usually don’t cause enough damage to qualify for disaster relief funds, which can add more pressure to people trying to clean up. Samantha Sharp said her parents probably spent around $50,000 cleaning up after the 2011 and 2017 floods.
It will be up to the borough to use the information gathered by its team to find fixes, although Middletown has no obligation to follow the researchers’ recommendations.
“The real goal is to get data from the field, so when we start targeting solutions, we’re targeting the problem and we’re actually going to deliver a solution,” Clark said.
Borough Director Kenneth Klinepeter said he hopes the work of Clark’s team will show the borough where money is best spent on solutions. He said the borough has not upgraded its storm sewer system since he took office in 2016. Once more data becomes available, engineers will be able to determine what types of upgrades are necessary.
Look (middle) west
For example, the borough might look to Dubuque, Iowa. Beginning in 1999, the city experienced six storms over a 12-year period that were declared federal disasters.
These storms put the city on the path to a radical solution that included the discovery, or “natural lighting,” of a buried creek.
The old Bee Branch Sewer is now Bee Branch Creek again, with a park and walking trails. The city bought up about 100 properties to make space for the project and move people out of the flood-prone area.
Dubuque also built green infrastructure like rain gardens and streets with permeable pavement. He added retention ponds upstream to hold water during heavy storms.
Deron Muehring, a civil engineer from Dubuque who ran the Bee Branch program, said they tried to build for the future.
Usually engineers design for the 100 year event, which means something with a 1% chance of happening every year. Dubuque built for the 500 year event.
“It made sense for us to design for these 500 years to be better positioned to deal with whatever the future might throw at us in terms of precipitation,” Muehring said.
His advice to other cities trying to solve similar flooding problems: involve residents early in the process and plan well in advance to best take advantage of available grants.
Muehring said communities shouldn’t be afraid to think big. He said that if he had seen the plans for Bee Branch’s final project 20 years ago, he wouldn’t have thought it was possible.
The plan has been the subject of criticism. Newspaper reports from the time show people were outraged that the city was considering demolishing homes. Some said that the price offered for their properties was not enough. And others didn’t want to see utility bills go up because of upgrades.
But Muehring said the project was working. In July, the city broke a daily rainfall record with more than 2 inches in a matter of hours. In the past, Muehring said it likely would have caused flooding, but not this time.
He said now the Bee Branch Creek is considered an asset. He even sees real estate ads advertising “Bee Branch Facade”.
Middletown and Dubuque have some similarities. Both sit on major rivers, the Susquehanna and Mississippi, and have buried streams.
But Middletown is a borough of less than 10,000 people, while Dubuque has nearly 60,000 people. It cost around $160 million just to bring Bee Branch to light, not including other infrastructure upgrades. The budget for solutions in Middletown will likely be smaller.
People like Deb Sharp want to see patches soon. But solutions will take time.
Dubuque’s Bee Branch project took over a decade from concept to completion.
Middletown is just getting started.