Rising Waters

Reader Contribution by Andrew Weidman
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Saturday, Facebook wanted me to mark myself “safe” in the Lancaster Flood Event. At first, I blew it off, unconcerned by what I considered a minor situation.

Then the news reports and photos started rolling in, making me sit up and take notice. This was bigger than I had realized, apparently National News worthy big.

We’ve been having an unusually wet season this year, the second wettest on record. The wettest season happened in 1972, thanks to a 100-year event hurricane (Agnes, for those familiar with Pennsylvania). We are only now coming into the part of hurricane season that typically affects us.

In the past couple months we’ve received week long periods of rain interrupted by frantic intervals of lawn mowing. Right now my lawn is stretching — and too wet to mow.

Several cornfields on my work commute have standing water that never drains or dries. One field flowed water onto the road for a week and a half, and a softball field has been flowing water all summer, its infield a shallow sea, no Casey at the bat this season. The land is saturated and can take no more, but more keeps coming.

Flash flood and river flood watches and warnings have become the norm in my area, and we’re learning to take them seriously. Before, flooding only happened once in a very great while, thanks to hurricanes and rain driven snow melts. Flood warnings used to be rare, and rarely fulfilled.

That wasn’t the case on Friday. The Labor Day weekend forecast promised for hit-or-miss rain showers through Monday. Friday dawned sunny and humid but cool, hardly the scenario for a heat-pumped storm generator.

By the forenoon, the humidity had reached 100 percent, and was falling hard. Doppler radar showed rain blossoming in greens, reds, yellows, and the never before seen (at least by me) pinks and whites.

Parts of Lancaster County, where I work, received 10 inches of rain in a 3 hour period. Cars and trucks were overwhelmed by flash floods in a matter of seconds.

One motorist reported his truck being disabled by 4 feet of water within 30 seconds. Main Streets flowed like rivers in several local towns.

As I left work, I knew none of this. All I knew at the time was that the rain was unusually heavy, and that I might need to rethink my way home.

Normally I take back roads from Lancaster to Lebanon. There’s far less traffic, and the scenery is far more picturesque than the main avenue, State Route 72.

The catch, of course, is that they cross several small to mid size streams and travel through low areas. The wiser course seemed to lie in taking 72.

72 passes through Manheim, a small town predating the Revolution by about 50 years. That means Main Street is narrow, too narrow to allow parking on both sides. Main Street also crosses a stream large enough to masquerade as a small river anywhere else.

Traffic through town slowed to a crawl, each light cycle allowing only three or four cars to pass in the driving rain. As I crossed the stream, I saw it had swollen to overflow its banks, flowing 4 or 5 feet below the underside of the bridge.

A second, temporary stream ran down Main Street, leaving only the center crown of the street above water. Had the water ran much higher, travel would have been too risky. As it was, I was traveling uphill, so there was nowhere else to go, any way.

By the time I got home, 45 minutes later than normal, the rain had finally stopped, or I had driven out of it, I’m not sure which. Later, I saw drone footage of Manheim, streets filled with standing water, the stream out of its banks AND across the road, passage impossible, footage typically only seen on National News. You can see it here.

Later, I learned that in addition to flooded roads and stranded motorists, the rain brought washed out bridges and houses shifted off their foundations.

We forget that rain can turn serious, even deadly, and fast. Take severe weather watches and warnings seriously. Load a local weather app onto your smart phone and check the Doppler radar, past and projected.

If you must travel, even for a short distance, avoid low areas and stream crossings. Never cross standing or flowing water — there’s no knowing what lies beneath the surface.

Keep alternate routes in mind and reroute as necessary. And keep in touch with someone as you go.

You never know when Facebook will ask you to mark yourself “safe.” These things don’t always happen “somewhere else.”

Photos property of Andrew Weidman.

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