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Displacement And Detours Along The Route 30 Landslide Site Are Temporary, Officials Say

Keith Srakocic
Workers stand along a roadway shut down in February after a landslide. Clearing work was still continuing in various parts of the city when a storm prompted another slide ripped 300 feet of highway on Route 30 in East Pittsburgh Saturday, April 7, 2018.

Route 30 near East Pittsburgh had been buckling for weeks under the stress of continued rain and snow until it finally collapsed on Saturday.

A landslide tore 300 feet of highway to pieces and tumbled chunks of road and earth down the hillside and into some apartments on Electric Avenue below.

PennDOT and local law enforcement closed the road on Friday for inspection. When they discovered the beginnings of the slide, they evacuated more than 30 residents living in six apartment buildings. At least two of the buildings were irreparably damaged and demolished, officials said. 

"They left with just their pajamas on as the chief of police was trying to get everybody out," East Pittsburgh Mayor Louis Payne said. "But they didn't have their glasses, or their medications, or their phone books or stuff that they wanted."

Payne said police escorted residents in and out of buildings to collect whatever remaining belongings they could, but that some of them lost nearly everything they owned. 

"They're staying at two different hotels," Payne said. "Through the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, they're getting meals there. We made access so they can have bus transportation."

Displacement is only temporary for most, he said, but local and state agencies are working to find new housing for residents who have suffered total loss.

"I've been getting phone calls for days from different people wanting to know what they can do to help," Payne said.

Presentation of Christ Greek Orthodox Church stayed open all night as an impromptu command center for first responders and displaced residents on Orthodox Easter Sunday.

Payne said he believes that the community's desire to aid neighbors is a silver lining in an otherwise muddy disaster.

At a summit Monday on autonomous vehicles, PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards said she's "been in this business quite a long time, and I can say I've never seen something like that before."

Affected areas of Route 30 will remained closed for a minimum of two months as crews reconstruct the roadway. That strip of highway carries about 30,000 vehicles each day, Richards said.

Payne predicted that repairs will cost the state millions, but Richards declined to comment about costs because PennDOT has yet to establish an official cause. The Pittsburgh metropolitan area experienced one of the rainiest and snowiest 30-day periods in its history. Richards said PennDOT should publicly identify the cause by the end of the week. 

Some have criticized the department for not responding quickly enough to the buckling road, but Richards said she is pleased with the state's response.

"[We are] extremely happy and proud of our team that nobody was injured. If you drive close to that slide and see the impact, the destruction of buildings, it really makes me feel good knowing that there is not one injury," she said.

PennDOT policy also requires an after-action response review after any major event, Richards said.

"We have an excellent relationship with the City of Pittsburgh. We will share everything with them, and if needed, make sure we review protocols already put in place," she said. "It's hard to say right now without all the details, but of course if that's what is needed, that's what we'll do. We want to make sure everybody feels safe on our roadway network."

Payne said traffic was backed up five miles in East Pittsburgh on Friday, the first day of the road closure, but that his administration has worked closely with PennDOT to create a system of detours. He said he's confident that drivers will find a route that works best for them and that congestion will get better soon.

Adelina Lancianese is the assistant producer for the NPR Story Lab, a creative studio that fosters newsroom experimentation and incubates new podcasts. At the Story Lab, Lancianese works primarily on investigative, long-form projects, and also helps organize the annual Story Lab Workshop for the development of new independent and Member station podcasts.
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