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City To Take Over Flash Flood Safety Checks After Washington Blvd Gates Malfunction

Matt Nemeth
90.5 WESA

City officials said Monday they’d lost track of who was responsible for testing three flash flood safety gates on Washington Boulevard that malfunctioned Sunday, resulting in the heavy rains submerging two cars. 

First responders used tow ropes to rescue a 54-year-old woman from one of the vehicles. Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said the woman told him she saw some kind of indication that she should not drive through the street but thought she could make it. It was unclear what indicator she saw. Three passengers were able to escape from a vehicle without assistance.

When operational, water pressure sensors cue flashing lights and gates that bar inbound traffic before cars can reach the natural dip created where Washington and Allegheny River boulevards meet.

Public Works Director Mike Gable said the city is now working with a contractor to determine why that flood gate system in Highland Park did not work Sunday. Prospect-based Bronder Technical Services will be paid $8,000 for seven to 10 days of inspection.

An inspection report will determine what needs to be fixed, Gable said. 

“This might be a simple fix. It might be simply that some batteries are worn out and need to be replaced,” he said. “Understand that it’s a system that talks to each other. There has to be clear lines of communication to talk to one sensor, one pole to the next pole.”

The city took over operation and maintenance of the system in late June following a meeting with PennDOT, Gable said.

City officials initially pushed the department to install flood gates at Washington and Allegheny River boulevards, Washington and Negley Run boulevards and Washington and Highland Drive, following the 2011 drowning deaths of four people near Highland Park.

Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich details the rescue of a 54-year-old woman from a submerged car Sunday night on Washington Boulevard during a press conference Monday at the City County Building.

PennDOT, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority and the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority collectively paid nearly $2 million in settlement agreements to the families of Kimberly Griffith, 45, of Plum, who died beside her daughters Brenna, 12, and Mikaela, 8, on Aug. 19, 2011 when heavy rain sent water flooding through their minivan; and Mary Saflin, 72, who was picked up by a 9-foot wall of rushing water as she tried to flee her car.

Then-Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Michael Huss watched city crews test the gates during their installation the following spring.

He told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that more than 1,200 public safety employees had been trained in basic water-rescue techniques, and an additional 500 would complete training by the end of the month. Swift-water rescue and boat operation training would be next, Huss said at the time.

Hissrich said all police, fire and EMS personnel have been trained in swift-water rescue. They are also equipped with personal flotation devices and water rescue bags.

“I’m positive without their valor in attempting to save her … that we may have lost another life on Washington Boulevard,” he said.

Gable said he couldn’t speak to what happened during the previous mayoral administration, but the city is stepping in now to take over. It was never clear who was in charge of the system, he said.

“Up until June when we met on Washington Boulevard, as far as I was concerned, it was still PennDOT’s system. (No one) officially turned it over to us,” he said.

Now the city will check the system monthly – or quarterly, depending on Bronder's evaluation – with the state’s existing checklist.

“This system hasn’t been looked after,” he said. “But when it’s back in our hands and the system is working properly, we’re going to make sure it’s functioning properly all the time.”

Mayor Bill Peduto said the city will not ask the state for any additional assistance with the gates. Peduto said he’s most concerned with issue's the root cause.

“The fact that we need gates is a failure of being able to have a stormwater management system that’s adequate,” he said. “You shouldn’t need gates to keep people from getting into situations where the flooding could kill them.”

Peduto said the city is working with international engineering firms to stop the water before it gets to Washington Boulevard. He said 80 percent of flooding issues, from streets to backed-up basements, occur in 20 percent of the city.

The solution is to “make those areas a sponge rather than a funnel,” he said.

Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she worked for the school newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.
Megan Harris is a writer, editor, photographer and curator for Pittsburgh's NPR News station. She leads editorial coverage for The Confluence, 90.5 WESA's live, one-hour, daily morning news show.
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