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Pa. officials urge residents to stay aware and avoid flooded roads after fatal flash floods

  • Jillian Forstadt/WESA
A thunderstorm in Harrisburg on June 3, 2023 caused minor flooding on Front Street at Boas Street.

 Rachel McDevitt / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A thunderstorm in Harrisburg on June 3, 2023 caused minor flooding on Front Street at Boas Street.

Summer means more severe thunderstorms, and with that an increased risk of flash flooding. Five people died over the weekend after waters swept through Bucks County, Pa.; two remain missing.

Randy Padfield with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency said those who died had tried to cross flooded roadways by car.

“To be quite honest, the highest loss of life that we see in the Commonwealth with flash flooding is people that are in their vehicles,” he said.

According to Padfield, it takes only one to two feet of water to sweep a vehicle downstream. He urged residents to never drive through fast-moving water and always remain weather-aware. Severe precipitation events can develop very rapidly and can result in many inches of rain over a very short period of time.

“There may be warnings, but the warnings may not give them enough reaction time,” he added.

Turn around when facing flooded streets

Flash flooding often occurs when pipes and stormwater systems aren’t able to handle excess rainfall dumped by summer storms. In hilly cities like Pittsburgh, that water then travels downward.

With scattered storms forecasted for western Pennsylvania this week, officials are encouraging residents in low-lying areas to take precautions.

Residents experiencing flooding should first relocate to higher ground, said Matthew Kramar with the National Weather Service.

From there, Kramar said, residents should report flooding to emergency responders so they can relay the information to others.

“Given that storms are pretty localized, it’s hard to communicate that information out,” Kramar said. “People tend to take different actions when they know something is happening versus just being told that something’s happening from a warning.”

Kramar said as little as 6 inches of fast-moving water can “sweep someone off their feet” and stressed that residents should always turn around when facing flooded roadways.

The Allegheny County Department of Emergency Services recommends residents familiarize themselves with flood terminology: watches indicate flooding is possible, while warnings signal that a flood is imminent or actively occurring.

To prevent property damage, county officials also encourage homeowners to routinely clean and maintain gutters to ensure that rainwater flows away from the house. Runoff rainwater could also be stored in rain barrels so that it may be used to water plants or wash cars.

Despite severe rains, Pennsylvania remains in a drought

According to Padfield, Pa., on average, experiences moderate-to-severe conditions that could lead to flash flooding four to six times a year. So far this summer, communities in Berks and Bucks counties have weathered such storms.

But despite these severe rains, the NWS’s Kramar said southwestern Pennsylvania has not experienced much flooding compared to years past. Quite the opposite: the region has seen a slight rainfall deficit and is experiencing a low-level drought.

Unusually dry seasons, as have occurred over the past few months, can lead to stunted crop growth, increased fire danger and wilting gardens. It can also result in declines to water surface levels.

Kramar added that the storms that have moved through the region so far this season are fast-moving with stronger winds than is typical for this time of year, making it difficult for flash flooding to occur.

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